Isolation and Social Media: A Downward Spiral

I’ve wondered how many people have “shied away” or almost given up having heart-to-heart conversations with loved ones, let alone friends. Long, deep conversations seem to be disappearing from our lives. What happens to our sense of belonging when we hardly get ten minutes into a conversation without a distraction or interruption from our devices? Do we feel lonelier when our conversations are distracted and fragmented? Are we embarrassed if it appears we are bothering people when we start to talk about something important–a “bad time?” It just never feels like the “right” time to have a good talk, especially if we are worried about a serious issue.

Long before COVID-19 invaded our lives, many social scientists were claiming that meaningful conversation was actually disappearing in our digital age. According to a Cigna Study (2018), 53% of Americans reported that they had meaningful interactions on a daily basis. That means the other half of us felt that our conversations lacked substance or meaning—in short–superficial, empty, or impersonal. Nearly half of us go through days or weeks without being nurtured by meaningful, honest, or personal interactions. This lack of authentic connection can be magnified by the impact of COVID-19, because we also lack physical contact due to social distancing.

Sherry Turkle, a social science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has devoted the past twelve years to examining how our digital age is diminishing our time, focus, and appreciation for meaningful conversations. In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2016) she laments that when we check our phones while interacting with someone, then “what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”

Sherry Turkle makes a compelling case that we can set good examples for our children, our peers, coworkers, and friends when we protect the time we need for face-to-face interactions. I’ve been heartened by her studies and her recommendations for ways to keep conversations vital in our lives. Many of us might not need social science research to convince ourselves that we need to reclaim conversation in these times, but after several years of feeling shunned, shut out, and dismissed while trying to rev up conversations, I’ve found her research downright reassuring and confidence-building.

Social Media and Loneliness

If we are feeling lonely and left out, we turn to social media. And during the pandemic, of course, most Americans have relied on social media (as well as Zoom or Skype) to stay connected. According to a Gallup/Knight poll in April 2020, 74% of Americans report that they have counted on social media during the pandemic as a way to stay connected. It would be fair to state that social media has served us well as a much-needed substitute for in-person connections during quarantines, giving us opportunities to talk, share photos, videos and music playlists, enjoy movies through Watch Parties on Facebook, and attend online events.

Yet social media can drain our time and energy for in-depth conversation. Relying too much on social media and online social networks for a sense of connectedness can backfire, robbing us of the communication habits we need for talking about more important or difficult subjects. Unfortunately, the research shows that if you are already lonely or isolated in your life, you are more likely to rely on social media too much and increasingly avoid conversation and meaningful face-to-face activities.

Unsurprisingly, a powerful phenomenon has exploded out of our dependency on social media called FOMO, fear of missing out. This syndrome can cause depression as well as anxiety—particularly social anxiety. (Interestingly, long before the advent of social media, the term, FOMO, was coined in 2004, by author Patrick McGinnis, making his op-ed popular in an article in the magazine of the Harvard Business School.)

FOMO, fear of missing out, sums up the ways social media isolates us by keeping us constantly hooked:

  • Checking our phones so we don’t miss anyone trying to reach us.
  • Checking out other people’s lifestyles and comparing ourselves.
  • Checking out the very latest updates on news, events, changes in plans.
  • Checking our phones so we don’t get left behind and forgotten.

Ironically, the harder we try to stay connected, the more isolated we become. These figures grabbed my attention:

1. Millennials who describe themselves as lonely report relying more on social media and online connections for companionship. (“Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the US,” Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2017.)

2. Eighty-two percent of people believe that smartphone use at social gatherings actually hurts conversations. (Tchiki Davis, PhD, Research and Development Consultant, Contributor to Greater Good Science Center’s Science of Happiness course and blog.)

3. Some 92 percent of US adults now have a cellphone of some kind, and 90 percent of those cell owners say that their phone is frequently with them. Some 31 percent of cell owners say they never turn off their phone, and 45 percent say they rarely turn it off. (Pew Research Center Study of 3,042 Americans, 2015.)

4. Women are more likely than men to feel cell use at social gatherings hurts the group: 41 percent of women say it frequently hurts the gathering versus 32 percent of men who say the same. Similarly, those over age fifty (45 percent) are more likely than younger cell owners (29 percent) to feel that cellphone use frequently hurts group conversations. (Pew Research Center Study of 3,042 Americans, 2015.)

5. Only about half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis. (Cigna study, 2018.)

6. Facebook can make us feel lonely. (Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults, University of Michigan Study, August 2013.)

7. Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7). (Cigna study, 2018)

My big takeaway: When we feel left out of face-to-face connections (lonely) in our lives, we are more likely to turn to online connections as our sole source for companionship, which can lead to more social isolation and then to poor health, mentally as well as physically. It truly is a downward spiral.

I’ve created a diagram to illustrate how isolating events and a lack of social support can lead us into dependency on social media and then further to greater isolation and withdrawal.

The downward spiral of social isolation (Imagined by the Author)

The downward spiral of social isolation

If we catch ourselves falling into a downward spiral and spinning in more isolation and loneliness, we have the power to admit it and own it. Indeed, by openly telling a trusted person in your life that you are lonely or isolated, you are taking the most important step. Fortunately, in these pandemic times, it has become more socially acceptable to be candid about our loneliness—because it is now quite common for people to feel lonely during lockdowns, social distancing, financial upheaval, unemployment, and the collective grief of these uncertain times. It is well known that most of us are exhausted from Zoom and online contacts. Those of us who live alone (1 in 4 Americans) are living without being touched or hugged for months at a time.

In short, in pandemic times, people have a good reason or “excuse” to feel isolated, lonely, and anxious, and this means there is less stigma about loneliness. Now more than ever, we have a perfect opportunity to unlock ourselves from the prison of shame about lacking social contact. We can befriend our loneliness in ourselves as well as others with a sense of compassion and understanding. We truly are all in this together.

Eight Ways to Break Out of Isolation

  1. Contact a long-lost friend, classmate, colleague, or relative. You might be surprised how good it feels to be in touch with people from your past who welcome your call.
  2. Check in with someone who is more isolated than you are. There may be someone in your family, a friend, or neighbor who could benefit from your reaching out.
  3. Help others, or volunteer to help your community—even remotely. (Check out Volunteer Match at www.volunteermatch.org). Serving others gives us a sense of purpose, normalcy, and alleviates anxiety. Join a cause that you believe in.
  4. Talk to a mentor, therapist, minister, or perhaps a trusted friend about your sense of isolation and loneliness. Teletherapy is more available and convenient. (Calls to crisis lines and helplines nationwide have increased well above 300%.) The psychological and socio-economic impact of COVID-19 has resulted in an enormous usage of mental health services. (I hope this is evidence that Americans are feeling less ashamed about reaching out for help—we cannot break out of isolation without the help of someone we can talk to and trust.)
  5. Get creative and make thoughtful things for the people you love and care about. (Beaded jewelry, greeting cards, paintings, wooden crafts, songs, poems, blogs, albums, stories for websites, sewing, knitting, even making face masks.)
  6. Create lists of media to share with others: Your favorite uplifting music on Spotify, or share videos on TikTok, or favorite podcasts or movies.
  7. Walk in nature—by rivers, forests, beaches. Or sit under a tree and listen to the birds. Renewing our sense of wonder and gratitude for life does wonders for us as humans.
  8. Of course, if we have a companion animal, we feel less lonely. Ideally, we can share our love of our pet with others which sparks lively conversations.

Note: This post is adapted from excerpts of 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community, with permission by the author and publisher.

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Val is an award-winning author with a master of science degree in rehabilitation counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of 400 Friends and No One to Call and has led support groups for 24 years for people living with chronic illness, disability, grief, and trauma. Read more about Val.

Go to Comments (7)

7 thoughts on “Isolation and Social Media: A Downward Spiral”

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  1. Thank you for your comments, everyone. I believe we can benefit from both online as well as offline interactions for deeper and more meaningful conversation–hopefully they are mutually beneficial and enrich each other. I do feel, speaking as a baby boomer, that our generation is more comfortable with casual in-person conversation and we miss those frequent spontaneous conversations. It is, for many of us, generational and cultural. During the pandemic, most boomers are benefitting from phone calls as least as much as social media (according to AARP research and British research with the Campaign to End Loneliness, on older people.)We love those calls.

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  2. This is pretty accurate, excellent and interesting article!
    At one point I even had online friends, but felt so empty inside.
    Personally, nothing beats face-to-face interaction for me ^^

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  3. This true, l personally think isolating myself will make things better but no. I end up losing my smile. But great article thanks.

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  4. I don’t agree. I’m frequently snubbed and excluded during real life social interactions. With my online friends, I can have meaningful and positive conversations. Without them, I would be completely socially isolated and have no friends.

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