The world is in a dangerous state.
This statement is especially compelling because it doesn't lend itself to a particular issue, problem, or event; although I will acknowledge that this post is not about Covid-19. There are countless reasons that the world is in a dangerous state, but I will not be listing them all. There have always been problems with the world and I want to start by acknowledging that. I do not believe that this world state is unique in its challenge; humanity has already been faced with plenty of social challenges. However, I do believe this world state is unique in its underlying mechanism. We have an affinity for the state of affairs the problem has created. We are content, although not happy, in this world state and are not particularly compelled to change it. In fact, we are biologically motivated to stay in this world state. I am talking about social isolation and the breakdown of human connectedness as a result of social media.
Socialization is a vital part of what it means to be human. We are social animals and always have been (at least since 52 million years ago). Socialization is so vital to our health that chronic loneliness can reduce life expectancy by 15 years. First, I want to make an important distinction that will come in handy later on. Loneliness is characterized as a feeling of disconnection with the world. The actual definition is a “distressing experience that occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired.” Being alone isn’t inherently lonely just as being in a group isn’t automatically a positive social connection. Loneliness occurs when we are displeased with our social connections, which could be a result of a lack of quantity or quality. This seemingly insignificant distinction has caused a massive rift in our society.
Our brains are hardwired to provide positive feedback when we are accepted socially. This is an evolutionary mechanism to incentivize us to do what is in our best interest. Every time we socialize our brain releases chemicals, mostly dopamine and serotonin, to tell us we did a good job. These chemicals feel good and are the reason we keep coming back. This is called positive reinforcement, which is an exceptionally strong tool. Positive reinforcement is fantastic when it rewards good behavior, but it can cause real issues when it rewards harmful behavior. These chemicals are a large driver of addiction, and they are the drivers of our isolation as well. As weird as it sounds, our addiction to socializing is the root of our social isolation problem.
Social media defines a significant portion of the social interactions we have daily. The amount of time we spend on our phones is quite staggering and the majority is spent on social media. There are structural mechanisms purposely built within social media to produce dopamine(e.g. likes on photos, tags in pictures, new connections or followers, etc.). Our brain is interpreting these mechanisms as socialization and rewards us for doing a good job. This seems like a good thing until we look at some numbers. Depression rates among teens and young adults are at unprecedented levels. Suicide is similar. I have countless personal experiences with growing insecurities as a result of social media. How many followers do I have? Why isn’t my life as fun as that influencer’s? Am I good enough? I have seen these questions preoccupy the minds of my generation, sometimes to a devastating extent. These questions are more common and pervasive than you might think. In short, you are not alone. The loneliness as a result of these questions is seemingly assuaged when more feedback comes in. New likes, followers, and connections remind us that we actually do belong, at least for a minute. Our social interactions on social media are often completely meaningless, yet our brain is rewarding us as if they are impactful and healthy. Rarely does real social connection occur, the kind that should be rewarded by dopamine.
So it begs the question, so what? Even if these interactions aren’t as good as real connections, aren’t they worth something? Actually, not really. These interactions provide no substance while still filling the void of social interaction. We feel like we are getting enough of it, but deep down it is wholly unsatisfying. The lack of meaningful connection is the problem that is causing our state of loneliness. This is certainly not a new concept, but it is one that still needs addressing. So what is the proper way to address it? The proper way to address our socialization addiction is to socialize. Wait, what?
We need the positive reinforcement mechanism in our brain, that is not the issue. The issue is when this mechanism is falsely triggered. We need to focus our energy into building meaningful social connections. This means investing in friendships with those that are active in our lives: give a family member a call, check up with that friend you haven’t talked to in a while, join a new hobby group. Meaningful connections only happen when we have drive and intention. Passive likes and followers don’t carry any weight. Meaningful connection comes from intimate conversations, shared moments, and expression of feelings. True connection comes from being seen and accepted for who you are, not who you think you should be. Social media encourages us to build a façade, to only show our highlights and hide our low points. Hell, if you look at my Instagram it will show me climbing mountains, when in reality the only mountain I am facing is the pile of homework and Zoom calls I have to attend to.
I am not saying that all social media is bad and you should delete all your accounts, but I am saying that we currently rely on passive and unfulfilling interactions to satisfy our need for meaningful connection. I don’t have a blanket solution to this problem, but I do know what has worked for me. I needed to make a directed effort to maintain the relationships that were important to me. I needed to recognize the addiction loop I was in and how it was damaging my mental health. Many of you may not have this issue, but if you do then you can recognize that you are not alone. We can work to isolate ourselves from the social media feedback loops and reconnect with the feedback loops that do matter. We can drive off loneliness by isolating ourselves from the addictive mechanisms of social media and building meaningful connections with those we care about.
“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
- Brené Brown