Facebook can’t meet our need for real-life connection

When it comes to social contacts, quality not quantity is what counts for wellbeing

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Millennials, Generation Y, emerging adults, the Odyssey Years, the Peter Pan generation. Many terms are used to brand or describe us 20-30-somethings. Forbes estimates we will hold 15-20 jobs over the course of our working lives. We regularly move house or apartment (perhaps with periods of living back with our parents). We travel. We live abroad. We experience a number of romantic relationships. We postpone “settling down”.

On paper, these changes can sound exciting. And often they are. We’re offered opportunities to try different things and reinvent ourselves. But in reality, it is not always fun. The true hallmarks of our generation are instability and uncertainty. And they make us anxious. It’s common to feel lost or alone as we navigate our way through this ambiguity.

Loneliness is often associated with older people. At Christmas, our TV screens and Facebook feeds feature ads that tug at our heartstrings. An elderly person sits down to dinner alone, or observes a happy family through their livingroom window. The idea is painful to think about.

However there is a problem with this depiction. It fuels a perception that loneliness is not a feature of youth. You don’t have to be “old” to feel alone. A report by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK found that 18-34 year-olds are much more likely to worry about being lonely, or feel depressed due to feeling alone, than those aged 55-plus.

Social isolation

We don’t only feel lonely when we are physically alone. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being alone gives us time to ourselves. To think. To reflect. Being alone can be wonderful. But unwanted social isolation can lead to the painful feeling we call loneliness. Research on human brain activity shows that a common set of neural regions underlie both social and physical pain. Our brains process social pain and physical pain in a similar way. It hurts to be lonely.

Feelings of loneliness can also occur in company, when we feel separated, detached or disconnected from the people around us. Simply being around others does not always protect us from loneliness.

As we move from job to job, place to place, we can become trapped in a bubble of painful disconnectedness, forgetting that many people are feeling exactly the same.

It’s hard to fathom that at any given time, one in five people feel so alone that it is a major source of unhappiness in their lives. Stephen Fry has described loneliness as the most terrible and contradictory of his problems. Fry reassures us that “you are not alone in your being alone”, but that is the worst part – it always feels like it’s only you.

Good relationships

A lack of social connectedness is harmful to our health and reduces our chances of living a long life. In fact, people with good social relationships have a 50 per cent greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. Researchers have found this effect is as great as quitting smoking and exceeds well-known risk factors for mortality including obesity and physical inactivity.

To feel socially satisfied, we don’t actually need all that many people. According to Prof John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, who researches how social isolation and loneliness affect people’s health, the key is in the quality of our relationships, rather than the quantity.

We all need several others who we can depend on and have an emotional connection with. But the number of people saying they have no one to discuss important matters with has nearly tripled since 1985.

Facebook friends

Young people can find it difficult to express feelings of isolation in a world that is more digitally connected than ever before. Glued to our phones and constantly linked into online social networks, how can we feel isolated and cut off from people?

Researchers say a lot depends on how we use social media. High levels of “passive” Facebook use (observing status updates, photos and conversations of Facebook friends not directly related to us) is linked to higher levels of loneliness.

Interestingly an Australian study found that female college students with higher levels of loneliness reported having more Facebook friends. We might know large networks of people, but without a few meaningful emotional connections, these networks don’t protect us from feeling isolated.

In a world of instability and insecurity, we learn to adapt to our friend and acquaintance circles changing as people move on to new experiences. It is hard work bridging the gaps in geography, lifestyle and schedules to maintain close connections. But when it comes to loneliness, a few precious connections mean everything.

Dr Louise Dolphin is research co-ordinator for Headstrong (The National Centre for Youth Mental Health). headstrong.ie

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