Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

Presenter: 
Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 05/20/2012

My family has a six-month subscription to The Atlantic Magazine as a result of the middle-school fundraising cartel that kidnapped one of my children, luring him with promises of plastic toys.  I don’t usually read The Atlantic, but when May’s issue appeared in my mailbox, the cover story asked “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”[1], and this caught my eye.  It caught my eye because I think I ask the same questions that maybe all of us have asked from time to time, as the Facebook phenomenon has exploded and we’ve seen friends and our children and our spouses and maybe ourselves being drawn closer and closer to more and more Facebook use.  Those questions are something like these:

Is this a good use of my time?  Is Facebook making my life better?  Am I connecting, spending time with my friends this way, or just with my Friends, if you know what I mean?  And The Atlantic Magazine sums up all these questions into a tidy package with the big question:  Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

 

And usually I don’t give the answer away in the first two hundred words to a sermon, but this time I will:  The answer, according to The Atlantic, is no.  No, Facebook is not making us lonely.  No.

But, of course, there’s more to it than that.

The first thing to consider in answering the question is whether or not we Americans are, in fact, lonely.  And not only lonely now, but more lonely than we have been in the past, such that we need to consider what might be making us so. 

The article takes a look at some of the studies from the past decade or so that suggest that we Americans are far more isolated these days than we were in the middle of the 20th century, for example.  The author of the Atlantic article, Stephen Marche, takes a look at the seminal book of 2000 called Bowling Alone, where author Robert D. Putnam[2] describes all the reasons why Americans are less connected to each other than they used to be:  reasons like living in suburbs, watching more television, family changes, cultural changes. 

And the Atlantic article, rightly so, also points out that we Americans have chosen to become more isolated from each other and from our social groupings.  The American Dream of the 20th century, practically speaking, involved making enough money to move out of a crowded city or a cramped intergenerational home to get a bigger house, farther away from the city where other people are gathered, farther away from your family or your work or your social groupings, where you could be alone with the people you choose. 

Culturally, we Americans relish concepts like “independence” and “self-determination”.  We even use our inventions to take us away from everyday interactions with other people.  Witness the ATM.  Witness that glorious self-checkout machine at the grocery store.  Independence and freedom are American values built into our culture and our technology.  But independence, if you want to use a darker term for it, can also be called isolation.

But is isolation the same thing as loneliness?  In the years where we’ve been becoming more and more isolated, living our American dream in the house in the suburbs or at the ATM, have we become not only isolated, which is a sort of neutral thing, but also lonely, which is most of the time a bad thing? 

The short answer, which I’ll offer quickly again, is yes.  Yes, we have become more isolated.  But, more alarmingly, yes, we have become more lonely too.

A few of the studies that tell us this have asked people “how often…” questions, such as “How often do you feel that you are ‘in tune’ with the people around you?”, and “How often do you feel you lack companionship?” and so on.  And a study like this done by the AARP in 2010 found that 35% of people over the age of 45 were chronically lonely.  Ten years before that, in 2000, only 20% of people over age 45 were chronically lonely. 

Another study asked folks how many confidants they have, how many people there were in their lives they could discuss important matters with.  In 1985, 10% of Americans had no-one in their lives with whom they could discuss important events, and another 15% only had one person like that in their life.  Which is bad enough, until you look at 2004, where a full 25% of Americans had no-one with whom they could share important events of their lives, no-one, and another 20% only had one person.  That’s 45% of Americans with one or no people in their lives with whom they could share their important news.  45%!

So these past years, the Facebook years, have seen a dramatic increase in the rise of loneliness.  The Atlantic article suggests, and I agree, that this isolation-and-loneliness epidemic is an unintended consequence of our American ability to implement those values of independence and freedom which are important to us.  The author, Stephen Marche, says that “[l]oneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence.”  And, he says, “[we] did not seek out loneliness, but [we] accepted it as the price of [our] autonomy.”  And, he says, “The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness.  But Americans have always been willing to pay that price.”

So Americans are lonely, and have been becoming more so, but our question today is whether or not Facebook, which has risen as dramatically as our loneliness, is a cause or just an association. 

And the various researchers with whom Marche spoke all said no, Facebook is not the cause of our loneliness.  Rather, whatever loneliness we have, or conversely, whatever connections we have, we take to Facebook.  Facebook is just another vehicle, Marche says, with which we live out our loneliness or our connectedness with others.  “Using social media doesn’t create new social networks,” Marche says.  “[It] just transfers established [social] networks from one platform to another.”

Yes, there are lots of studies that show that people who are disconnected from others or who have neuroses of various kinds are more likely to spend more time on the internet.  And there are studies that show which actions on Facebook correlate with different levels of loneliness or connection.  If you are a user of what they call “one-click” Facebook communication, like clicking “Like” on the things you see, then you tend to be lonelier than those who use Facebook to interact more deeply, with comments and so on.  But at the end of the day, the experts that Marche spoke with agreed:  “[O]n Facebook,” Marche writes, “as everywhere else, correlation is not causation.  The popular kids are popular, and the lonely skulkers skulk alone.”

So if we believe all this, and I do, then it really takes Facebook out of the equation entirely.  The question for us to consider is not anymore, Is Facebook Making us Lonely, because we know the answer is no.  And I would say we don’t even need to know the answer to “why are we so lonely?” because we’ve heard some compelling ideas as to why that might be, how loneliness is the unintended consequence, the flip side of the coin, the American currency, of the independence that we prize. 

No, I would say that the real question is now this:  If we are lonely, if we have stumbled into this unintended consequence, what is the remedy?  How do we get less lonely?

Researchers have an answer for this, actually, and it’s pretty simple: 

The cure to loneliness is face-to-face contact with other people. 

There doesn’t seem to be much of a way to replace that need for face-to-face contact.  Facebook is certainly not a replacement for it, although researchers are quick to note that if you tend to use Facebook to facilitate face-to-face engagement then your Facebook use will make you less lonely.  Researchers also say that not only is Facebook not a replacement, but neither is time with pets or a connection with God.  It is interaction with other people, in real time and in real spaces, that fights our loneliness.

The annoyingly predictable minister in me wants to remind you now of a place where we come face-to-face regularly, in real time, and in meaningful settings: Church - this one, in particular.  In church, we ask how you are, and we mean to hear the real answer.  In church, you can tell us what’s going on in your life and we will stop what we’re doing to listen to you tell it.  You can do that at coffee hour and at joys and sorrows and in chalice groups and in committee meetings and at potlucks and while you’re pulling weeds or planning a lesson for the kids.  So if you are lonely out there, don’t turn to Facebook.  Turn to church, turn to this church.  That’s one of the things that your perhaps very predicable minister wants you to take away from this sermon. 

The other thing I want to talk about is less predictable, but it makes up the end of the Atlantic article, and it is also the thing that concerns me the most about Facebook use and the draw that people feel towards social media. 

Marche points towards this phenomenon a bit when he mentions that one of the problems that he has with Facebook is how reading about all sorts of people talking about how great their lives are makes him feel slightly depressed.  As he puts it, “[w]hen I scroll through page after page of my friends’ descriptions of how accidentally eloquent their kids are, and how their husbands are endearingly bumbling, and how they’re all about to eat a home-cooked meal prepared with fresh local organic produce bought at the farmer’s market and then go for a jog and maybe check in at the office because they’re so busy getting ready to hop on a plane for a week of luxury dogsledding in Lapland, I do grow slightly more miserable.”

Marche believes that all these people who post to Facebook in this way are wrapped up in a pursuit of happiness.  So he goes on to reference studies that say that pursuing happiness doesn’t actually lead to happiness.  But I see this situation slightly differently. 

My main problem with Facebook, and social media in general, is that when you’re on it, instead of just being yourself - the complex and glorious You that is real and true - when you use Facebook you are charged with the task of defining yourself and representing yourself, not just being yourself.  And in so doing, I think, you are bound to sell yourself short.  Does this make sense? And the “people” you’re interacting with on Facebook aren’t people, not really, but are representations of people that those people have chosen to create, in order to interact with the representation of you.

Most religious traditions talk about the holy nature of presence.  Meditation encourages people to exist in the moment where they are, without mentally leaping ahead to the future or ruminating about situations that have already gone by.  Religious rituals abound with the purpose of bringing a person into the present moment, rather than keeping them in the abstract realm of ideas and concepts.  Even pop spirituality tells us that we are human beings, not human doings. 

And there is a reason behind these lessons and tasks having to do with presence.  There is a sacredness to experiencing the present moment, just as it is, without explaining it or justifying it or connecting it to something else.  There is something fundamentally holy, mysterious, about our selves and our lives as they really are.  When instead of just being, we instead have to explain something that’s happening, we have to misrepresent it just a little, we have to make it just a little bit shallower, to take away some of the complexity, to take away a bit of the unexplored potential for creativity.  We have to do this because language can only cover so much, because we are only able to understand and interpret so much, even about ourselves, even about our own lives.

If you meet me face to face, you catch me as I am.  Maybe I’m not being particularly interesting, to myself or to you.  I might be, at that particular point in time, glad about one thing and mad about something else, and a third thing might be bugging me but I’m not sure what it is, and underneath it all I might be very pleased with the world I live in and all the ways in which I interact with it, or I might not be pleased at all.  All that can happen in one person at any given time, and more.  Much more.

But when we put ourselves on Facebook, to the exclusion of those face-to-face experiences, what do we tell the world about ourselves?  I probably won’t post about the thing that’s making me mad, unless it’s entertaining in some way.  I can’t post about the thing that’s bugging me that even I don’t understand.  All I can report to you are things that I’m both aware of AND that I think are appropriate for a Facebook page, for that particular setting.  And that report of myself that I make, that way of representing myself, is necessarily a much shallower presentation than the real me, the one that’s out here, which changes from moment to moment in ways I can’t predict or control. 

Marche, in the article, calls these social media images that we create “elaborate acts of self-presentation.”  He says Americans have always done it, but they didn’t do it every single day, often before they got out of bed in the morning. 

Incessant interactions between mere representations of people and their lives is ultimately unsatisfying, I say, because it is ultimately unreal.  Human beings need more than that from each other.  They need to see each other’s real faces and to hear the subtext in the things that they say.  They need to be able to communicate with each other even when the kids weren’t cute that day and no-one is going dogsledding in Lapland next week.  They need to come together and be themselves, and let themselves be really seen and really heard for who they really are, even if they can’t see who they really are themselves. 

And this is what we do in church, when we’re doing it right.  Church is the opposite of Facebook.  But we also need to do it outside of church.

So if there is a message for you today from this pulpit, that message is not that your loneliness is caused by Facebook.  It’s not even to stop using Facebook altogether.  But the message that I will give is that if you are lonely, then you are in a large cohort.  In other words, ironically, if you are lonely, you are not alone.  And if you don’t like being lonely, then the cure for your loneliness is to spend time with real people in real places doing real things.  You’re already here, so that’s a great start.  Join a chalice group.  Come to dessert night, or coffeehouse.  Say hello to someone at coffee hour.  I’m sure that person will talk to you; we’re famous for that at Sugarloaf.  Reach out to someone right in front of you, someone who is real, so you can be real too. 

May you feel, always, as connected as you wish to be.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Marche, S. (2012, May). Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? The Atlantic, pp. 60-69.

 

[2] Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.