Since you already have your phone out or computer screen up, take a moment and check how many Facebook friends, Twitter and Instagram followers, and whatever other social media connections you have.

 

Now, how many of those individuals would you consider a close confidant?  After posing this question to in a recent American study, Professor John Cacioppo found that 25% of the participants said they had “no one at all.”

 

Cacioppo, a Professor at the University of Chicago, has been investigating loneliness pathology and its public health consequences for over two decades.  In the early 1990s Cacioppo introduced the scientific community to a new field, social neuroscience, and has since demonstrated the importance of understanding and analyzing the need for stable bonds within social species, namely the human race.

 

Seemingly counter-intuitive, Cacioppo has found that “often times, fewer is better” when it comes to the quantity of one’s connections.  Some people have countless networks yet feel lonely because of the increased likelihood that motivations (of material gain, for instance) can impede true connection.

 

Such large and ultimately fruitless social systems lend themselves to the contagious quality of loneliness.  “I have become lonely for some reason and you are my friend,” Cacioppo illustrates.  “As a suddenly lonely person I am now more likely to deal with you cautiously, defensively, as a potential threat to me [because you might leave and add to my pain].”  Consequently, more negative social reactions will burgeon and rot the relationship, “so that is one less confidant for both of us.”

 

Cacioppo’s findings have could advocate for public health and policy reform.   The incidence rate of loneliness is high: one in four people regularly feel lonely.  Early death by factors related to chronic loneliness is increased by 20%, the same rate as those fatal factors related to obesity.  Though a direct cause-effect relationship between loneliness and heart disease and cancer can’t be drawn, there are serious health implications including sleep fragmentation and poor immune system function.

 

What does this research mean in the context of mounting social media use?  Roughly two-thirds (65%) of American adults use social networking sites.  Both the 18-29 and the 30-49 age brackets have seen increases.  The latter group has increased from 8% to 77% social media users since 2005, and compared with a mere 12% in 2005, 90% of young adults are on social media.  What could this mean for the prevalence of loneliness and related health consequences?  Is there a decrease in confidant quality associated with a growth in social media?

Perhaps the use of  “social” as a modifier for media is as ironic as your friend’s Facebook post of a “Forever Alone” meme.

 

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/28/loneliness-is-like-an-iceberg-john-cacioppo-social-neuroscience-interview

http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/