Quick everyone—let’s blame the internet! A report published recently by the Mental Heath Foundation found that nearly 60 percent of people in the U.K. between the ages of 18 and 24 admit to feeling lonely “sometimes” or “often,” while the same applies for only 35 percent of folks over the age of 55. I guess the assumption is that young people in the prime of their lives are supposed to be having the time of their lives so they can spend their 50s talking about it? [Daily Mail]
I don’t know. What went wrong that we’re all at least a little lonely? Yes, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that things have changed since the advent of social networking sites. But there have got to be some other reasons for this shift. Here are 10 I think are particularly salient.
- We’ve Forgotten How To Talk. Many young people, myself included, discovered early on that even if you’re shy or socially awkward in person, you can create an internet persona, a spackled façade that is essentially untouchable from behind these glass-windowed computer screens. Even if you have no trouble talking to people, the “language of internet communication” changes the way you form sentences. You’ve just spent the day trying to sound witty in instant messages, tweets, profiles, and status updates but you don’t talk to people in 140 characters. Having an arsenal of one-liners will not necessarily enable you to have an actual conversation.
- We Don’t Hug Our Friends, We Poke Them. As the Daily Mail reminds us, physical contact releases oxytocin into the bloodstream and makes us feel good. It’s what bonds lovers during sex and mothers with their babies while breastfeeding. But “emoticons” release nothing. We may feel warm and fuzzy when our crush pokes us on Facebook, but what about holding hands and first kisses? At times when I’ve been the loneliest, I found some joy in being squished together with strangers on subway trains—just a big hugging mass of humanity. And when you’ve gone for a long time without a hug, you know how satisfying it feels to be slightly crushed in someone’s arms. The internet can’t hug you. Yet.
- Too Many Internet Friends. At some point, it seemed that when it came to friendship, the key was quantity over quality. Why would you go hang out with your best friend when you can simultaneously reach 600 of your closest friends and carry on 30 simultaneous conversations? And we look so popular while doing so! But without quality friendships, the connections are increasingly superficial. Internet friends might not want to drive you to the airport or be the best man at your wedding.
- We Do Everything Online Instead Of In Person. In the olden days, one would go to the travel agent to book a trip or visit a mall to buy new jeans, but now those things can be done on the internet. You can order groceries, prescriptions, pizzas, and dining sets without even picking up the phone. In a single day, you could “run” a dozen errands without leaving the couch. But you also won’t see a single human being. When I think back on my childhood, I remember my mother taking me to the fruit monger, the butcher, the bakery, and the cheese shop and having conversations with dozens of people in the process. These days, I sometimes to go to the grocery store just because I know that the small talk with my check-out person is the only conversation I am going to have that day.
- We’re Encouraged To Emote. Before the time of blogs, people wrote down their feelings in their journals. They didn’t expect people to comment on their thoughts or hope that one day, it might magically get them a book deal. You were not necessarily encouraged to spew the details of your breakup or the intricacies of your sadness before the advent of Livejournal or Blogspot. And perhaps because I’m a huge believer in the powers of suppression, I’d like to suggest that sometimes it’s not healthy to share everything. It gets addictive. And you want to run into more brick walls, so you can tell your readers how badly they hurt too. People relate to sadness and to the hope that the sadness will end. People rarely get book deals for talking about how put-together and rational they are.
- Too Many Internet Dates. I’ve been dating on the internet for the past seven years or so, but lately I’ve wondered if it’s not messing with fate. Twenty years ago, you had to physically be in the same place to meet another person. There would be a chance to test the chemistry, get a whiff of hormones, or judge someone by their footwear. Now, you might exchange a dozen emails and meet someone with whom you’re totally incompatible and would never have been forced to cross paths with them were it not for dating websites. A girl might receive dozens of emails a week from men who secretly wear Crocs. They’ve wasted time getting to know each other and are left despondent and might want to give up altogether.
- Our Computers Are Informational Umbilical Cords. You realize that if you leave the house, you might miss the status update that your ex-boyfriend got engaged, right? Or maybe while you’re out, one young celebrity made out with another young celebrity and all your Tumblr friends have already posted their fake baby pictures like you wanted to! The internet, like the world, keeps revolving even when we stop paying attention and for some reason, this is really hard to cope with for some people.
- Everyone’s Broke. Maybe the internet shouldn’t shoulder all the blame and the financial climate has something to do with our loneliness? It’s nice to go out with friends every night and have elaborate dinner parties, but many young people are un-employed or under-employed. And spending the night watching television or drinking alone while video chatting with someone else who’s drinking alone is way cheaper than leaving the house.
- My Life’s Online, Why Leave The House? According to commercials, you can get a college degree online, while wearing pajamas. After you graduate from online college, you can get a job working from home in marketing, programming, blogging, etc. Once you’re satisfied with your career, you can look for a potential mate on dating websites or talk about your day with your Facebook friends. But despite the amount of people we might relate to on the internet during the course of a day, this lifestyle is isolating.
- We’ve Missed Out On Social Development. During adolescence, you learned lessons about sharing and respecting each other’s opinions. When we were introduced to the internet, so many of these social mores went out the window. People regularly rip apart other’s opinions and create bravely offensive voices to lash out at whoever they see fit. For some reason, this behavior doesn’t translate well into real life and some of us have perhaps forgotten how to treat each other. And when we’ve pushed away or offended enough people, we’re bound to be lonely.
Why do you think younger people report feeling lonelier?