Man sending messages with his mobile phone

Exploring Loneliness and Solitude in the Digital Age

by admin

Loneliness vs. Solitude

According to Merriam-Webster, loneliness is defined as “being sad from being apart from people” or “being without company.” The very definition is simple, but the condition is more complex than sitting in a room by yourself.

Psychologists differentiate between loneliness and solitude. In solitude, you lack contact with other people. That isn’t necessarily loneliness: driving alone while singing to music on the radio is an experience of solitude, for example. Artists, musicians and other creative types often find it necessary for their work and seek it out.

It can also be a welcome refuge, or even spiritual practice, giving you the time and quiet for contemplation.

The Nature of Loneliness

Loneliness, though, is the discrepancy between your desired level of social contact with what you actually achieve, according to authors Letitia Peplau and Daniel Perlman in their seminal work, “Loneliness: A Sourcebook on Current Research, Research and Therapy.” It’s that contradiction between how we want to feel versus what we actually experience that opens up the chasms of emptiness within us.

As a result, you can experience loneliness even when you’re surrounded by friends and colleagues all day and go home to a spouse, partner or children at night.

Causes of Loneliness

If we can experience loneliness even in the presence of others, what causes that feeling then?

Certain life events can spin you into isolation: the death of a loved one, a breakup or divorce, a move away from everything you’ve known. Chronic psychological and physical issues can also make you feel isolated, too. And those with clinical and even postpartum depression can create the feeling of loneliness, while close relationships riddled with poor communication, anger and resentment can also lead to a disconnect.

Interestingly enough, marriage often breeds loneliness for that reason — we have high expectations and desires that our spouse will keep us from feeling alone, but we often find anger and resentment building up over the years when they prove too preoccupied, busy or simply complacent about the relationship.

In fact, about three-in-five seniors said they were lonely, despite being married and living with their partners, according to a study by the University of California, San Francisco in 2012, underscoring that marriage is no insurance against the feeling of desolation.

Existential Perspectives

Existentialists, who follow the mid-20th-century philosophy made prominent by famed thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, believed loneliness was the essence of modern humankind. We are born alone and we ultimately die alone, and the task of human existence is coming to terms with that essential truth and finding meaning through our actions and accomplishments.

Contemporary Impact

Whether or not you agree, loneliness is a very palpable aspect of contemporary life. Study after study finds that people of all ages feel lonelier and more isolated. In 2008, a landmark study conducted by the University of Chicago discovered that one-in-five Americans often felt lonely. And according to the AARP, in 2010, two-in-five seniors often felt the pain of being alone, up from 20 percent in the ’80s.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., the Mental Health Foundation reported that nearly three-in-five young adults aged 18 to 34, despite all their social networking, admitted to feeling isolated and disconnected often or all the time.

Health Implications

It turns out, social isolation doesn’t just make us sad — it can make us sick. According to a meta-analysis of studies focusing on the elderly and loneliness, seniors without adequate interaction are more likely to die prematurely. Loneliness impairs immune function, according to the University of Chicago. In terms of effect on mortality, the risk of being alone is comparable to that of smoking, and twice as dangerous as obesity.

The Impact of Technology on Loneliness

If loneliness is really a state of disconnection — an isolation from a group, person or community — then the increasing presence of technology should help ease the pain, right?

Actually, technology has a magnifying effect on our social isolation, often making us feel more alone, or lonelier than before. Long before Facebook was even a gleam in Zuckerberg’s eye, in 1998, a seminal study conducted by Carnegie Mellon researchers showed that growing Internet use coinciding with an increase in loneliness. Meanwhile, in the ’90s, academics noted an apparent “Internet paradox,” according to The Atlantic — a contradiction between the growing opportunity to connect with others and an equally increasing lack of social contact.

The Role of Social Media

With results going against expectations, researchers, scientists and academics posed the question: is technology actually making us lonelier? And that question became even more acute with the rise of social media — a set of technologies that, by definition, promise to help us connect and stay in touch.

There is no real evidence of a direct link between our enthusiasm for social media and our growing feeling of emptiness. Many of us, though, have an instinctual belief that Facebook isn’t good for our emotional health and relationships, especially in terms of the lopsided way we use it.

I can send out missives over Facebook, Twitter and e-mail while sick at home — but that’s no guarantee that people will reply, given how casual we’ve become about these avenues of communication.

The Loneliness Amplified by Facebook

Facebook, of course, can contribute to the growing sense of isolation: you log into the site and are confronted with the abundance of people’s lives humming along without you, complete with photos of trips, friends and gatherings you’re not going on. Through the same kind of social comparison that fuels hate-reading and other toxic behaviors, we can feel the inadequacy of our own social life. The gulf between what others supposedly have and our own reality can make us feel dissatisfied, and yes, a bit lonelier than we were before.

Impact of Technology on Social Relations

MIT professor Sherry Turkle raised the red flag over the subtle ways our devices and social media reshape how we relate to each other and ourselves. In her book “Alone Together,” she tells is a cautionary polemic against the way technology is sculpting our communication and relationships. Our propensity for Skype, text and Facebook, among other online and mobile methods, puts control and convenience at the forefront, but at the cost of genuine connection.

Turkle, whose earlier works included “The Second Self” and “Life On the Screen,” has made it her career to study the effects of computers and technology on social relations. In the era of technology, she argues that many of our online connections are, by design, shallow and superficial. Devices and practices like texting give you more control over what you show, but also allow you to disengage from communication at will.

Drawbacks of Convenient Connections

According to Turkle, people are “drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand,” leading to emotional laziness and neglect — mistaking a “like” on Facebook as a genuine connection or a chat with someone because they happen to be online. As a result, we don’t expect so much from our online friends, and that convenient and cavalier approach also fuels a tendency to treat others as objects or fads that are quickly discarded as we move to the next thing.

Loneliness in the Digital Age

It is connection on demand, and when it gets difficult or boring, it’s easy just to switch off. In some ways, that is what we love about communicating online and over devices — but ultimately, it breeds loneliness.

Related articles

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil — A Restless Genius

By all accounts, Ray Kurzweil is a genius — a “restless genius,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Forbes called…

Young man taking a picture of himself
Smartphones: Filmmaking Tools from Short Films to Oscar Winners

Smartphones are rising as a viable filmmaking tool. Of course, the iPhone is often the default choice of consumers looking…

Boy holding tablet
Browsing Through Time: From ARPANET to Chrome

The Early Days of Internet Browsers It’s easy to take browsers for granted: they’ve been around as long as there’s…

Ready to get started?

Purchase your first license and see why 1,500,000+ websites globally around the world trust us.