Loneliness In The Modern Age: When Social Media Ruins Our Social Lives

Worried that your smartphone is replacing your friends? We asked psychologists for recommendations when you find yourself caught in a spiral of loneliness.

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Back when Chad Zollinger was still in college, he remembers that the first and last thing he did each day was liking pictures and following people on Instagram. At the time, the 26-year-old spent countless hours chasing after fans for a successful comedy account he created. Yet despite attracting over 10,000 followers, he found himself lonelier than ever. Zollinger recalled that whatever he achieved was never enough. “When I hit 100 followers, I needed to get to 1,000. When I hit 1,000, my next goal was 2,000, and so on.” But soon after reaching his goal of 10,000, he realized it was all pointless. “I eventually ended up getting more excited about likes and follows than actual real-life interaction,” he tells HealthyWay. “It’s just so much more difficult to get up out of a seat and walk over to someone and have a great conversation—especially with strangers. While Instagram proved a valuable source for making friends, Zollinger found it wasn’t so great for building relationships. “It’s quick social intoxication,” says the Utah-based content marketing strategist. “Almost everything on social media is less meaningful and watered down. You get a like or a comment and you are satisfied for like two seconds.” Zollinger’s experience rings especially true for those of us millennials who find ourselves glued to our devices. In many ways, his quest for followers reflects the current zeitgeist of our tech-savvy times: craving contact but not knowing how to meaningfully connect. This could account for why our generation is at a greater risk for developing an array of mental health problems like anxiety or depression, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

“When studies find that loneliness is higher in youth than in the elderly, it’s time for us to begin to talk about the side effects of our current culture.” —Melissa Deuter, MD

While past research has primarily focused on the 42.6 million lonely adults over age 45, this latest study shows that millennials are feeling more left out than previous generations—a fact that poses serious repercussions to our longevity. Forming close, caring bonds is crucial to our physical and psychological well-being—so much so that not having them can increase our risk of premature death by around 30 percent. “When studies find that loneliness is higher in youth than in the elderly, it’s time for us to begin to talk about the side effects of our current culture,” says Melissa Deuter, MD, a San Antonio-based board-certified psychiatrist specializing in the care of teens and young adults. “And it’s no wonder. If you’ve watched a group of young people socialize in recent years, you’ll see they mostly stare at devices; they rarely engage with each other at all.” Still, simply increasing face-to-face interaction isn’t the solution, although it’s certainly a good first step (especially considering the fact that people can still feel lonely even in the presence of others). So what exactly is happening?

Why are millennials lonely?

With social media and a mere tap of our finger, we’re privy to everything we never knew we always wanted: lavish vacations, far-fetched marriage proposals, that new Japanese restaurant (that we probably can’t afford). It’s right there within our grasp—or so our fear of missing out would have us believe.

“When we view someone else’s post who seems to have it ‘all together,’ we may draw comparisons between their life and ours,” —Julie Williamson, licensed professional counselor

Here’s the thing: Spending all our waking hours aimlessly scrolling through what seems like a plethora of missed opportunities activates a limiting “jealousy” mindset. Continuously staring into the highlight reel of other people’s lives makes us feel wishful at best and incompetent at worst. If only, we think to ourselves—if only I started running each morning, if only I worked harder at my jobif only I were worthy—effectively reducing our self-value to a 5.5-inch screen. “When we view someone else’s post who seems to have it ‘all together,’ we may draw comparisons between their life and ours,” says Julie Williamson, a licensed professional counselor based in St. Louis. And this, consequently, makes us feel separate and different from that person. “If we are feeling that way with every post we look at, feelings of isolation and loneliness can set in.” What can be done, you might ask? Unless we’re willing to ditch our phones and cut out technology altogether (which let’s face it, isn’t realistic), Williamson recommends we learn better approaches for using social media with moderation—which brings us to our next point:

Put boundaries around your social media use.

If, like most, you find yourself caught in the mousetrap of let’s see who’s better than me, Williamson, a millennial herself, has outlined some immediate ways to avoid the comparison game.

  • Remove the apps from your mobile devices. As the cliché goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” To be clear, you’re not closing up shop—you can still access your accounts on your browser if need be, but removing the apps from your phone can significantly reduce the time spent aimlessly scrolling.
  • Remove alerts and email notifications (when someone has liked or commented on your posts). Williamson says these alerts can distract you when you’re in the middle of a task and leave you unable to think about anything other than checking your profiles.
  • Establish social media times. Decide when you will check your social media accounts and when you will not. Sure, there’s a little willpower to it, but here are a few tips: If you’re at work, for example, wait until your lunch break to check your profiles. Or maybe set a time once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
  • Designating other activities during that time. Since we tend toward checking our accounts when we’re bored or procrastinating, Williamson recommends designating other activities like taking a brisk walk or stopping at a co-worker’s desk.

Just as we’d swap out junk food for nutritious snacks, we should always opt for in-person connection before scrolling. Think of it the same way you would when embarking on any new lifestyle change: Every small action counts and can ultimately help stave off unhealthy habits.

Take steps toward IRL socializing.

Stagnation breeds loneliness: More so than just limiting social media use, we should keep our focus on making real-world connections, says Crystal Lee, PsyD, a Los Angeles-based licensed psychologist who works primarily with emerging adults. “The best way to combat feelings of missing out is to create a rich social and leisure life for yourself.” In other words, leave the house! Catch some rays! Look at the people around you, says Williamson, “Consider if there’s someone you connect with or think you could potentially connect with, and take a small step to get to know them better.” If, for instance, there’s someone at work you think you’d mesh well with, ask them to join you for lunch. Or maybe you met someone in your kickboxing class at the gym—see if they want to grab a post-workout smoothie.

“Making friends is very similar to dating; sometimes you go through a few duds before you find someone you actually click with.” —Crystal Lee, PsyD

Lee advises, however, that if you’re really struggling, it’s important to make intentional decisions and create habits to get out and be among people. “You can’t go to a couple of events and expect those people to be your new BFFs,” she says. Fostering true, authentic friendships takes time. “So if it takes you literally putting in your calendar that you’re going to reach out to someone every month, then do it,” she says. Most importantly, we should remember to stay intentional and consistent with our efforts. Instead of just passively scrolling through our feed, Lee urges us to join some local social media groups and start building a community from there. “As you get to know people online, make the transition to a real life hang out.” And try not to get discouraged if it takes you awhile to find your people. “Making friends is very similar to dating; sometimes you go through a few duds before you find someone you actually click with.” Similarly, Williamson recommends Meetup groups as a great way to find people in your area with similar interests. If you strike up a conversation with someone in a group, see if you feel comfortable enough to ask them to get together IRL, she says. Of course, it’s important we always exercise caution and safety with anyone we meet online.

When It Comes to Friends: Quality Over Quantity

Long-term loneliness is on the rise because people aren’t really together when they are together, says Deuter. Many of us millennials are guilty of checking our phones rather than having a lengthy conversation over dinner. But equally important to the amount of attention we’re paying others, is choosing quality over quantity when it comes to whom we spend our time with. While it’s true that we have hundreds of friends and acquaintances on social media, is it really possible to plan a coffee date with every one of them? Not likely, says Williamson—instead, we should try to set realistic expectations. If we feel like we’re not seeing enough of our old friends, we should consider the time we have available in the next month for socializing, and then select a comparable amount of friends we could see during those times. “Choose those friends that are closest or that you miss seeing the most,” Williamson adds, “then try reaching out to each of them to schedule a time to hang out.” And while we try to parse out which friendships are deemed “quality,” it’s important we take into account some questions about these relationships: What is it about the friendship that is most important to us? Are there other friends who seem to invest more of their time and energy into maintaining the relationship? According to Williamson, the latter are the friendships we may want to pursue. The goal is to have a few close friends where there is real emotional intimacy, says Lee, not just a bunch of random people you can hang out with on occasion. Ultimately, fostering these deep connections is what eradicates our feelings of disconnect.

Create meaning, not a persona.

It’s no secret that we post our best or ideal selves on social media. But this ultimately gives the impression to others that we are perfectly content and happy with our lives, says Williamson, which may or may not be the case. According to Amy McManus, a licensed therapist in Los Angeles who works with millennials struggling with anxiety and relationship issues, “Not only do millennials feel lonely, they feel unique in their loneliness.” If everyone else is having so much fun, then not only are we lonely, we’re a failure for feeling this way. However, McManus is quick to point out that these lofty accounts are often facades for underlying feelings of insecurity. “The people who have the best Instagrams are often the most lonely of all—looking for activities that photograph well instead of activities that are meaningful and reflect solid values.” As Lee puts it, “If you feel secure in your own life, you’re less likely to get those gnawing feelings that you’re missing out on something.” For Zollinger, tying his value to the number of followers he could reach only perpetuated his feelings of disconnect. He says that all of this changed soon after college when he began working as an editor for a company’s blog. Whereas before, he saw Instagram as an easy way of receiving instant approval, his job taught him that valuable things are never attained without hard work. Receiving training and being able to connect with co-workers caused his preconceptions of worth to shift. Between Zollinger’s job and faith-based activities, he was able to gain meaning from a life outside of the screen, and to eventually see social media as a temporary value-reward system, rather than a reflection of his own self-worth. Now, when he uses his account, it’s just to send funny memes to friends. “It’s still fun in some ways—you can send me fail videos and I will probably laugh every time.”

Cindy Lamothehttp://cindylamothe.com/
Cindy Lamothe is a biracial writer living in Antigua, Guatemala. She has written about health, wellness, and psychology for The Atlantic, BBC, The Cut, Shondaland, The Guardian, Quartz, Teen Vogue, and The Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her site to read more of her work.