Only the Lonely Can Play?

There is research abounding lately telling us social media make some of us feel crummier, not better. The data suggests that the more time you spend on social media, and the more distant your associations on that media are (four thousand friends you’ve never met), and the more you resemble a Young Person, then the more likely you are to believe all the happy photos and OMG!!! blathering are the sum total of your “friends’” lives, and that, by comparison, your bleak, boring little asteroid is a sucky place to be.

A significant part of me wants to hoot, “How many tax dollars did some think tank spend to prove that staring at a screen isn’t a substitute for being with your mates?!”

Except I think what’s at work, in part, is nothing more sophisticated than guilt by association. In another blog, I point out that overweight people drink more diet soda than skinny people, and viewed in the wrong light, one can use this “data” to conclude that “Diet Soda Makes You Fat!!!”

Association is not the same thing as a casual relationship (after doesn’t mean because of, to bastardize the Latin). We need to reserve judgment about the power of social media to “make” us lonely. The young folks who are friending the known world and spending hours and hours with social media are likely lonely to begin with. When some of their peers are learning how to go on in relationships, the social square pegs are hanging out in Farmville by the week. When they might instead be playing a game of pick up rugby, they’re up till all hours lurking in the chat rooms until the girl from Dubai gets online.

Lonely people find things to do. We all know, we’ve been among their number at some point. In a former age, they could read Trollope or Hardy, write letters, take long walks around the city (Dickens’ habit was twelve miles a day), or sit at the bar and drink. Did hanging out at the bar make them lonely? Did reading make them lonely?

Maybe in a sense, but I suspect what it might have done was made them more aware that by comparison with those fictional characters, with the bustling city of London, with all the people who had friends to meet at the bar, their lives were lonely.

The question remains unanswered though: Are the lonely people on Facebook more lonely than they’d be without it? That’s another experiment, and not one anybody has figured out how to design yet.

What are your thoughts? What–if anything–has the power to make you lonely?

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18 comments on “Only the Lonely Can Play?

  1. My thoughts are a little jumbled and confused on this issue. I think that having a screen between us allows for the creation of a persona, so in a sense it is not our real selves. And perhaps to a feeling of loneliness. However, 2011 held real challenges for me and social media sites saved me in a sense. I reconnected with people through a screen maybe because I had it’s protection (the ability to edit). I tend to be a loner in real life and have found a voice online. I have been working on having real friends again but have connected with them first online. When I was horrible to deal with because of quitting smoking I reached out on FB and got tons of support and encouragement from people that didn’t have to live with me. I have a new appreciation and need to connect with folks both on the web and outside it. Perhaps it was all in the timing, but social media saved me (and my family) from bottling and hiding. I started connecting with my interests. It was liberating. I have found myself getting out more with real folks too. One led to the other.
    Allison Edney

  2. Allison, there are probably many, many stories like yours, where the social media took the heat off your primary relationships, gave you and your family breathing room, and gave you options in terms of directions you could reach out. I also think that most of us turn to “middling” relationships when we’re in the mood to develop deeper friendships. We have to start somewhere, and there’s a limit to how close I want to be to the people I see at work every day. The middling relationships–around horses, books, etc–are fertile ground for more substantial friendships.

    You raise several excellent points in a short post. Ever thing of blogging yourself?

    • Thank you Grace. I have thought about blogging. I am the worst at being a critic, and the fear has kept me from following my dreams. With quitting smoking I have decided that this is the year to be me, unabashedly and shut that critic down. I think blogging would be an excellent exercise in developing my voice as a writer. It would also be an opportunity to see if folks are interested in what I have to say. As always I am grateful for your voice and responses. Thank you for your time!

      • Bear in mind when you blog that even if you aren’t getting many comments, you’re probably getting traffic. Many more people read than comment. I like to blog. It gives me a place to put those passing thoughts that catch your fancy and yet don’t have application to a work of fiction. Best of luck, and never, never, never give up!

  3. Social media is our virtual front porch these days. When my parents added a large front porch to their house, people would stop when we were all sitting out there and chat for a few minutes. Sitting on that front porch is an implied invitation. Social media is very similar.

    Books don’t make us lonely. Non-team sports don’t make us lonely. Sitting in a bar doesn’t make us lonely. Social media doesn’t make us lonely. We make a choice to be lonely. Yes, you can be lonely in a room full of people. You can be lonely and have thousands of Facebook friends. You are lonely because you have a choice. And loneliness does not have to be a permanent state.

    • Sabrina, I’m with you up to the part where “you are lonely because you have a choice.” There’s a kind of loneliness that comes from nobody knowing you when you want to be known, from nobody being capable of comprehending the traumas you’ve endured. Many of my clients are quite young, very traumatized, and very lonely. Simple company will not assuage their sense of loneliness. They need to be around people who’ve walked the dark side of the moon and have the courage to go back there, seen things nobody wants to admit exist, much less look on. They are by no means lonely by choice, and finding the people who can relieve that loneliness will likely be a lifelong labor. I’d say their loneliness is in the nature of a curse–low cards they didn’t ask for and can’t even describe adequately. Those sad cases aside, you are spot on: Loneliness does NOT have to be permanent.

  4. Not to argue, but I do believe there is a point it becomes a choice. Yes, there are times when you are dealt a crappy hand. But it’s what you do after the fact.

    I’ve had students who had stories that were just beyond what I could imagine someone would do to their own child. The most recent, and best example I have, was a student who had been in a horrifying situation. His aunt and uncle had adopted him. He called them Mom and Dad. They worked so hard to make him a part of their family. They sought professional help. They did everything they knew to do, but he insisted on carrying that baggage of his past. I say he insisted because he told me that he used to tell the therapist what they wanted to hear so they would live him alone.

    But your blog was about what causes loneliness. Not about crappy parents and the families they destroy. So on the upside, I’ve got a Facebook account (most of my “friends” are people I actually have known at some point in my life), I’m talking to you on your blog (a woman that I’ve never met), but neither of those things has made me lonely on this less than sunny Sunday in the South. 🙂

    • Sabrina, I agree, we have more choices than we often want to acknowledge. With other people, though, I try to assume they’re doing the best they can, and if they’re falling short of my expectations or wishes for them, it’s because they can’t do differently, not because they won’t. This philosophy reaches its limit faster the closer I am to the person in question.

      Complicated subject, particularly where childhood issues are concerned. I’ve always considered myself fortunate that I thrive in solitude. I can’t imagine what it’s like to need a lot of human interaction and be unable to find it in healthy ways. Maybe I should write a heroine like that, or better still, a hero…?

      • I am a fan of solitude (probably something that developed because I am so happy to immerse myself in a good book).

        And, yes, extending someone the benefit of the doubt can be cut quickly as you see/hear more of someone’s story.

        “…need a lot of human interaction and be unable to find it in healthy ways.” This was my student. He wants people around. He wants to be liked and part of the group. But the only way he goes about this is by picking a fight. By the end of last school year (my last year at that high school), we all kinda felt like he got what deserved with that last beat down (You really shouldn’t stand up in the cafeteria and tell another guy you “f**ked his sister” and not expect him to slam your head into the floor). I hate to get to that point, but eventually it happens with the chronic bad choices.

        It would make an interesting story. This is a kid with the potential. But his choices and his walls push keep everyone at arms length until they finally give up. Then he can feed off the fact they gave up him (without acknowledging that he contributed to their decision to quit).

      • Oh, if you were to write a character like this. I’d like to see it as a woman. Way to often stories are written where women are the ones having to help the hero overcome his emotional baggage. A turn around would be nice.

  5. Some people exist so the rest of us can learn boundaries. I’m convinced of this. These people often get filed under the heading, “People We Used to Date,” or “Bosses I Nearly Killed Myself For,” and so on. Teaching is such a tough profession, and then add that stuff to it… hats off to you on the basis of your profession alone.

    • Thanks, but, often, I’m not sure I’ll make the 20 more years until I can retire (thankfully, the first 10 years have gone by relatively quickly). And I’m always thinking of what I can do after I retire since I’ll only be 54 and I have no intentions of staying longer than 30 years.

      And kudos to you for not doing bodily harm to the parents/guardians you see in court.

  6. Most of them were dealt the same low cards their children get. Very few of us can overcome five generations of poverty, mental illness, addictions, and low functioning in the 15 months allotted by federal law. The miracle is that any of them do and that all of them, somehow, love their children.

    • There is a vicious cycle of poverty and addiction that some families find themselves in. And often that is then exacerbated by mental illness and learning disabilities. I can understand and sympathize with that. It’s the abuse that just royally pisses me off.

  7. I found social media helped me escape my limited rural world and find support through difficult personal circumstances. For me SN was a miracle, enabling me to make friends of like minds, to connect with and make friends I’d never have met otherwise. It’s enriched my life where circumstances have made it difficult to connect physically and cultural differences have made it preferable in some cases to get outside of my area cybernetically (if that’s not a word it should be). I can very much relate to what Allison said. Sometimes it’s easier to let your guard down and get to know someone through email where you can gradually let the barrier down. It seems that there are a lot of relationships started online.

  8. Excellent point, Livia. It’s hard to believe NOBODY among those studied expressed the same sentiment, and my guess would be, those are the people who have some good connection skills to begin with, and the impulse to connect. Social media didn’t “make” you reach out, but when you felt the urge, the tool came in mighty handy.