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So many “friends” yet still lonely? 

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Woman Against Orange WallWith “Quit Facebook Day” approaching (31 May 2010) many people are re-examining their relationship with the social networking site Facebook – the site that keeps on sharing.

Or over-sharing according to Time Magazine this month (Facebook – friends without borders”).

Some time this month Facebook will officially log its 500 millionth active citizen – a bigger population than the USA.

Not bad for an idea, dreamt up just over 6 years ago by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg to keep track of Ivy League students, which alongside Microsoft, Google, and YouTube, is bringing the web into people’s lives.

It’s the willingness of people to share information which has made it a success and also brought criticism. The default setting is maximum exposure and individuals who don’t necessarily want their friends to know what they have been buying, or have that information available on any web-site that wants it, for example, have had to reset their privacy settings.  Facebook has more than once had to pull back and allow users more privacy control after introducing new features such as Newsfeed (pre-dating Twitter) Facebook Beacon (now discredited), Open Graph, and Instant Personalization.

Zuckerberg’s Law – each year we will share twice as much information as we did the previous year – or so he hopes, is the underpinning for its business model and the site is designed to not only hook you in but also guilt trip you if you try to leave – a virtual Hotel California. With 25 billion pieces of information being shared each month, and with 1 billion images being added every week (it has 48 billion images making it the world’s largest picture collection), it’s easy to see why marketers and advertisers love it.

So people are sharing their lives, or some version of their lives, not just with close friends and families – which is how it all started – but with complete strangers. Doesn’t that seem odd? Or egotistical, or narcissistic, or voyeuristic? (And the same applies to Twitter).

Does “friending” people make them a friend? People with more extravert personalities tend to categorise the majority of people they know as friends whereas more introverted types will separate close friends from acquaintances and the thought of hundreds of people sharing their private lives would horrify them. Many people would happily pass up on their “15 minutes of fame” but not apparently those on Facebook.

And just how many “friends” can you handle anyway? Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed the upper limit for the number of people we can maintain stable relationships with is 150 – the size of small settlements and military companies. Others have suggested a higher figure of almost double that but the likely range seems to be 100 to 230. Yet many people on social networking sites claim connections with far more people than this.

Apart from the social networking and (self)promotional aspects it has also been used for recruitment by some large companies – and that should make students stop and think about what they put on their Facebook in, shall we say, their more relaxed moments. Not to mention how long they spend on it with some students reportedly spending up to 4 hours a day on it.

Despite all this interaction the Mental Health Foundation’s recent report; “The Lonely Society”, describes loneliness as commonplace. More people are living alone: the number doubled to 12% between 1972 and 2008, the divorce rate also doubled since 1960 and there are more lone parents. People are also living longer but most do so alone.

The charity suggests that investing time in social activities is seen as less important than work in a modern market-driven society. People now feel more pressure to be productive and busy and neglect friends and families as a consequence. 20% of people in their survey said they spent too much time communicating on-line than in person (28% of Facebook users are over 34 and this is the fastest growing age group).

There is also concern that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter hinder the development of social skills and the ability to read body language (NVC) . And internet contact doesn’t provide the physical contact which  helps build emotional bonds between people. In a nutshell, over-reliance on social networking to the detriment of real personal contact is not good for anyone’s mental and physical well-being.

But it’s not just Facebook: e-mail is just as much to blame for what a French philosopher Guy Debord called ; “the lonely crowd“. There are almost 1.5 billion people sending nearly 250 billion e-mails each day rather than having face to face conversations with colleagues.

According to John Freeman, author of “The Tyranny of Email“, we spend so much time checking our inboxes or refreshing Twitter pages, that we are less productive because our attention spans are shattered into tiny fragments.

Perhaps worse, Edward Halliwell, a New York psychiatrist, believes that we are so busy processing information from all directions that we are losing the ability to think and feel and becoming disconnected from other people.

The Times reported (29/5/10) that students today are 40% less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago. The current “Generation Me” is more narcissistic, self-centred and competitive and less concerned with other people’s feelings. They are seen as confident and individualistic but not as kind.

2000 seems to have been the turning point attributed to violent video games, social networking sites, and an obsession with TV celebrities. The researchers believe that technology has replaced human interaction and having online “friends” means that you don’t have to respond to their problems face to face. Coupled with inflated expectations, competitiveness means hiding weaknesses and leaves no time for empathy.

Updated 14 July 2010: Quit Facebook Day seems to have been a flop with only 36,000 people closing their accounts (out of 400 million world-wide) according to New Scientist (10 July 2010). Of course we don’t know how many who didn’t have an account were put off getting one. However researchers in social networking at Microsoft believe that Facebook has become an essential utility like water and electricity.

Updated 23 February 2011: Dr mark Porter’s column in The Times yesterday addressed the issue of loneliness. He pointed out what we already know ie that the increased use of mobile phones, the internet, and home entertainment systems has hastened the demise of community meeting points like pubs and social clubs.

But he also points out the health risks associated with loneliness. Lonely people:

  • tend to be bad at regulating their life-style and are more likely to pursue self-destructive habits such as drinking too much and over-eating
  • are less likely to seek emotional support and suffer more stress
  • tend not to sleep well. This affects their metabolism and if they are stressed can cause heart problems and affect their immune system so they are less able to fight off infections and disease.

And he cites a study of 3,000 nurses with breast cancer which showed that those with no close friends had a much lower survival rate than those with lots of friends.

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Author: mikethepsych

He says he's a psychologist but aren't we all?

10 thoughts on “So many “friends” yet still lonely? 

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  5. Having friends = Lonely, if only that person likes to be lonely

    If a person liked to be lonely, and if this loneliness is being deprived, then by instinct it is adequate to conclude that the person will feel lonely. For example, if something that an individual likes had been deprived, say music, and somehow for some reasons he could no longer has music in his world, therefore he or she will feel lonely. Well I have to define what lonely means. Being lonely is when a person met the state when he or she has another innate world inhabiting in the person’s mind which is reliable to the person. Communicating within the own mind is a way to relieve him or herself from disconnecting with the world due to the compulsion that the person is physically or mentally avoid to interact with the outside world thus he or she feels more secure within his or her own mind. Now back to the subject, when the person has friends, he or she is no longer lonely because the external factor (interaction with friends) causes the breakdown of the person’s own mind, so he accepts the fact that he is no longer lonely. But as I said, that person likes to be lonely. Since he is no longer lonely due to having friends, he feels lonely once again because what is likes has been deprived, which is to be lonely. Therefore, he feels lonely having no loneliness.

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