Yeah, It Turns Out That Technology Doesn't Make Us Lonely

from the the-lonely-moral-panic dept

Just recently, we were talking about the bizarre claims by Sherry Turkle that social networking makes us more lonely because we spend less time alone (don't try to make sense of it). Soon after that, the Atlantic published an equally vapid feature arguing that Facebook leads to loneliness. These kinds of arguments show up every so often, and they always seem supported by anecdotal evidence.

Perhaps that's because the actual evidence suggests it's a load of crap. Boing Boing points us to a good piece by Claude Fischer in the Boston Review noting that the idea that we're living in an age of increasing loneliness is complete hogwash and not supported by the data at all. First, the article notes just how many articles and books have been claiming the opposite. It seems that claiming that we're all getting more lonely is a lucrative niche sector for the publishing industry. It's one of those things that lots of people want to believe, so books that support that worldview are apparently quite popular. Fischer has compiled a bunch of data looking at their social connections from 1970 to 2010, and finds that "Overall, Americans reported no more loneliness in the 2000s than they did in the 1970s."

It is true that the nature of social relationships has changed, but the difference is just different, not "bad."
The results, which I compiled in Still Connected (2011), show that some aspects of social involvement have changed since the 1970s. In particular, Americans these days sit down to fewer family dinners and host guests in their homes less often; eating and sociability continues, but outside the home. Americans communicate more frequently with their relatives and friends. Critically Americans are not discernibly more isolated—few were isolated at any point in those decades—and Americans remain just as confident of the support family and friends provide.
What the research really shows is that technology is a tool, and people use it for a variety of purposes. Some use it to avoid contact with people, while others use it to increase their contact with people. You can't blame the technology for how people use it. The technology just amplifies the individual aspects of different people:
People using the Internet, most studies show, increase the volume of their meaningful social contacts. E-communications do not generally replace in-person contact. True, serious introverts go online to avoid seeing people, but extroverts go online to see people more often. People use new media largely to enhance their existing relationships—say, by sending pictures to grandma—although a forthcoming study shows that many more Americans are meeting life partners online. Internet dating is especially fruitful for Americans who may face problems finding mates, such as gays and older women. Finally, people tell researchers that electronic media have enriched their personal relationships.

People typically turn new technologies into devices for doing what they have always wanted to do. And people like to stay in touch. A century ago, Americans, especially women, turned two new technologies marketed for other purposes, the telephone and automobile, into “technologies of sociability.” Developers of the Internet meant it to be a tool for the military and for scholars, and only a few imagined it might even serve business. Now users have made the Internet a largely social technology.
As the article notes, this doesn't mean loneliness isn't a problem for those who experience it, but it's not a growing problem, and there's no evidence to suggest that social networking or Facebook in particular increases loneliness.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Yogi, May 9th, 2012 @ 11:09pm

    I'm lonely

    Just reading this article, all by myself, made me feel lonely.
    I blame the internet - it is the root cause of piracy, facebook, and loneliness, not to mention IE. The world is going to &%%^&

     

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  2.  
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    MrWilson, May 9th, 2012 @ 11:11pm

    I'm naturally not that social. I like my significant other and a few people at work, but I've always been introverted and mostly asocial.

    Technology makes me more social because I don't have to call someone or figure out a good time to be social. With the internet, I can just be social when I feel like it.

    Without the internet, I'd still be asocial, I just wouldn't have as many outlets for being social on the occasions when I actually want to be.

     

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  3.  
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    lol, May 10th, 2012 @ 12:06am

    That's pretty funny considering most of the time I log out of my social networks is so I can be left the fuck alone.

     

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  4.  
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    Jake, May 10th, 2012 @ 4:13am

    I don't know about anyone else here, but I had more issues with loneliness before I had access to the Internet. If your hobbies, political views or sexual proclivities are even slightly non-mainstream, the chances of finding like-minded people within a radius of fifteen miles or so can be pretty remote in most places.

     

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  5.  
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    PaulT (profile), May 10th, 2012 @ 5:17am

    Re:

    This is true. I think that a lot of criticism of social networks make a lot of assumptions. Many make assumptions about the availability of particular social interactions outside the home and don't understand that niche interests are barely served outside of major cities. Others make assumptions about the circles of friends and family that exist - for example, Facebook doesn't replace physical contact with people who live in other countries, or with messages intended to be viewed by hundreds of people spanning the globe.

    All in all, social media is a tool for interpersonal interaction, just like the pen, the phone or the CB radio. Whether it's a force for good or replaces more valuable forms of communication depends on how you use it, and the value you actually had for those old forms to begin with.

     

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  6.  
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    Fox, May 10th, 2012 @ 6:20am

    Re: Jake

    Hear hear! As a flaming liberal feminist bisexual anime geek in a very rural area, the idea that the internet makes you lonelier is absurd on its face.

     

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  7.  
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    walter sabo, May 10th, 2012 @ 6:55am

    Lonely?

    The same complaints about anti-social results from internet use I heard from my parents about listening to the transister radio under the pillow. You either like to be around other people or you don't. Please no more NPR nonsense. Horrible.

     

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  8.  
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    AzureSky (profile), May 10th, 2012 @ 9:32am

    Re: Re: Jake

    Fox: Do a Barrel Roll.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 10th, 2012 @ 12:34pm

    Yup

    "What the research really shows is that technology is a tool, and people use it for a variety of purposes...You can't blame the technology for how people use it."

    Very true! And by the same token, you can't excuse people for their unlawful/unethical actions because of the technology they happen to be using. You can't hide behind technology, either way.

     

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  10.  
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    TtfnJohn (profile), May 10th, 2012 @ 4:33pm

    The same type of people complained that the penny post made people lonelier because now just anyone..ANYONE...could post a letter first thing in the morning and get an answer back in the afternoon. If you lived in London, the largest city in the world at the time, you were favoured with 4 deliveries a day so you could exchange written "communications" that often as long as both addresses were London addresses. All of this made people lonely. It just HAD to.

    And all these stories about romances and marriages, of all things, via the post couldn't be true. How can you find true love there? Don't you know that the girl on the other end of that exchange is a charwoman, M'Lord? You just can't go about romancing the lowest of the low as if she's your equal!

    Turns out his Lordship had been when they tied the knot a few days later and the resulting partnership not only survived but it was made in heaven. (No mention was ever made about the possibility these two people actually got to know each other deeply in the exchange of letters. So much so that things like social conventions of the time, how they looked, and age became the trivialities they mostly are became...well, trivial. Welcome to the world's first social network(s).

    How people choose to communicate is less important that the fact that they are communicating. It doesn't matter whether it's by mail, in the coffee shop, bar, Facebook, LinkedIn or where ever. They're communicating. That alone makes the vast majority of us less lonely not more lonely. Even trolls.

    No matter how hard one tries one can't shoehorn the life post Web and broad scale use of the Internet and Web into what came before it. Any more that one couldn't shoehorn life before telegraph, radio, telephone and television with what had come before and judge things like happiness and loneliness by what came before.

    With each new introduction in communications technology there have been those insist on what came before was far preferable socially than what it's like now. In each case they've misunderstood, often deliberately, what these changes actually do accomplish in their link to some kind of past utopia that only they can remember.

    Many of these people, today, seem to be IP extremists, those married to the past as if God given and the only way to live. (God him/her/them/self strongly disagrees but they aren't listening to any deities at the moment.) Not all are but they still have a personal axe to grind when facing different methods and norms of interpersonal relations.

    I guess my partner and I were doing it all wrong all those years before we decided to "shack up" rather and remain "IRC up'd"! Even if we were we're happy, deeply in love and isn't that what it's supposed to be?

     

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  11.  
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    Xephilon, May 10th, 2012 @ 4:59pm

    I am so lonely...

     

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  12.  
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    @aporya (profile), May 10th, 2012 @ 5:07pm

    dreck and malarky

    turkle has gone from a riveting social theorist to a crabby handwaver who fits in all too well with the nytimes cadre of technology cranks.

    i read her numerous books as a student -- her early work is lucid to the point of genius, blending a rheingold-esque ethnographic eye with an accute postmodernist psychoanalytic sensibility.

    it's sad to see such an accomplished and celebrated thinker -- at MIT, no less -- delve into such self-absorbed, unscientific, one-dimensional ranting, apparently situating this one unjustified claim as the lynchpin of her contemporary oeuvre.

     

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  13.  
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    @aporya (profile), May 10th, 2012 @ 5:07pm

    dreck and malarky

    turkle has gone from a riveting social theorist to a crabby handwaver who fits in all too well with the nytimes cadre of technology cranks.

    i read her numerous books as a student -- her early work is lucid to the point of genius, blending a rheingold-esque ethnographic eye with an accute postmodernist psychoanalytic sensibility.

    it's sad to see such an accomplished and celebrated thinker -- at MIT, no less -- delve into such self-absorbed, unscientific, one-dimensional ranting, apparently situating this one unjustified claim as the lynchpin of her contemporary oeuvre.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    john smith, May 11th, 2012 @ 2:12am

    really?

    yes the physical contact is not there, but it is no different than writting letters in the past. it is still a way of connecting to anther person.

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 11th, 2012 @ 5:38am

    its horrible to feel lonely i believe intenet is the matrics. i live in rural i just like social network

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 11th, 2012 @ 6:57am

    I usually agree with you Mike but your crusade against Sherry Turkle is sort of strange and anti-intellectual. Do you not understand the difference between cultural criticism and science? The NYT article is written in the first person, and there is nothing dishonest about it! She isn't using anecdotes to make sweeping claims, she is using anecdotes to get you to think about things you might not have thought of before and look at the world from a different perspective. It is a perfectly valid as intellectual discourse and Turkle's ideas deserve at least a modicum of respect. That means actually turning on your thinking cap and using some reason and intelligence if you want to dismiss her work. And it means not arguing in bad faith and saying she makes claims that she doesn't.

    I don't have to put words in your mouth though to reveal the idiocy of your post though:

    "The technology just amplifies the individual aspects of different people: "

    Really? Putting aside the issue of moral "blame", which I think is a complete misreading of anything Sherry Turkle wrote, is this what you think the relationship between technology and social change is? It just amplifies, period--nothing to see here; not worth looking under the hood? This crap is making me question the sophistication of your mental model of how the world works.

     

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  17.  
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    Lonely Guy, May 11th, 2012 @ 12:13pm

    The Denial Of Loneliness

    “I’m not lonely. If I wanted to be with someone, I would be with someone. And, I have lots of “friends on facebook”

    Seems like this article was written by someone who may be lonely but doesn't want to believe he/she is lonely. This, is the denial of loneliness.

    It’s hard for someone to admit to loneliness - especially when information is presented to them that may confirm the feeelings they've been feeling. Loneliness can make you feel unwanted, weak, maybe even a reason for the Facebook syndrome which we all want to deny, yet is completely prevailing in our everyday lives. You know FB Syndrome right? The developmental disorder which alters the intentions of social interaction of an individual characterized by impaired social norms.

    FB Syndrome Side effects include; heightened unwarranted interest in other peoples lifestyles as well as intense publication of otherwise private or unsubstantial personal information. rhyming the word lonely.

     

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  18.  
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    dork, May 11th, 2012 @ 2:56pm

    For those of us who don't deal well with strangers and first impressions, the Internet has been a wonderful thing. The point is to find forums which regularly generate face-to-face activity with the people who you have been typing at.

    So, when you get to meet them in person, you have already gotten past the first-meeting awkwardness.

     

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  19.  
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    proximity1, May 13th, 2012 @ 6:48am

    Re:

    Amen to all that!

    Here, an excerpt from Neil Postman's book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology



    ....

    "Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity's supreme achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved. They also believe that information is an unmixed blessing, which through its continued and uncontrolled production and dissemination offers increased freedom, creativity, and peace of mind. The fact that information does none of these things--but quite the opposite--seems to change few opinions, for such unwavering beliefs are an inevitable part of the structure of Technopoly. In particular, Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down." (p. 71)





    more excerpts from the book may be found at this URL---(another of the many social-networking sites which also demonstrates that, as a means of thoughtful discourse, these sites are a flagrant and pathetic bust--- (all the same, as a source for further quotes, I refer you to):

    http://www.librarything.com/work/46821

    for example,



    " ...What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if the television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question : In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God? And if the politician cannot think beyond the next election, then we must wonder about what new media do to the idea of political organization and to the conception of citizenship." (pp. 19-20)




    and, more generally, a reading list which I compiled and called, "A Reading Course in 'Technology and Society' -- Main text" :

    http://www.librarything.com/tag/A+Reading+Course+in+%27Technology+and+Society%27+-+main+text

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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