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Fresh Ideas: Disconnected, lonely and unhappy: Is Facebook to blame?

Kathy Walters

Does Facebook create loneliness or do lonely people flock to Facebook? That was the debate I found in the research after finally deciding I didn’t want to hear myself say, without knowing why: “Facebook? Not for me. Every time I log off, I feel inadequate, disconnected and lonely.” Was it Facebook or was it me?

According to Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, in her February 2012 TED Talk “Connected, but alone?” I’m not the only one who feels this way. Though she conceded to loving her daughter’s text just minutes before going on the TED stage, she advocated we take a hard look at our self-beliefs and behavior when social media and technology take something complicated, messy and difficult, like a real human connection, and promise something simpler.

Six years ago, at the suggestion of a friend, I reluctantly created a Facebook account as a way to stay connected to my soon-to-be teenager. Over the years, though, I hardly logged on. Then last year, at the urging of my brother, I made dozens of new Facebook friends because he said the easiest way to meet a future partner (I was newly single) was to create and attend my own Facebook events. For a week I passively surfed posts of people I didn’t know, but because I didn’t like how I felt when I logged off, I didn’t create events.

It turns out loneliness and Facebook do go hand-in-hand, but Facebook itself doesn’t cause loneliness. Around the time when the company went public (May 2012), there was a flurry of articles about the dangers and benefits of social media.

Stephen Marche in The Atlantic’s cover story “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” (May 2012) looked at history. “The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price. We are lonely because we want to be lonely.” He mirrored what Turkle had said about the difference between loneliness and solitude: “You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude. When we connect with ourselves in solitude, we’re able to connect more deeply with others.” I felt redeemed: Facebook steals my time better spent in self-reflection.

But Slate’s April 19, 2012 story by Eric Klinnenberg, “Facebook Isn’t Making Us Lonely” defended Facebook. Klinnenberg said, “People who feel lonely in their lives offline are likely to bring that loneliness to Facebook.” Was blaming Facebook a way to I deny I was lonely? How much solitude do I need? It was the quote by John Cacioppo, social neuroscientist and author of “Loneliness” which shifted the perspective: “Facebook is merely a tool. It’s like a car. You can drive it to pick up your friends, or you can drive alone.”

Finally, The New Yorker’s Sept. 10, 2013 “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” by Maria Konnikova gave me the answer I’d been searching for. She said “when people (on Facebook) actively engaged in direct interaction with others — that is, posting on walls, messaging, or “liking” something — their feelings of bonding and general social capital increased. But when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.”

Ah ha! Because I’d been a passive user, I’d become disconnected and critical. I needed to either cancel my account or use the tool as it was intended. Suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with the deeper question: what’s stopping me from making efforts to date new people? Thanks a lot, Facebook.

Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy, works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.