Digital media have saturated many people during the pandemic, but for young people they were a lifeline that filled their loneliness. In some cases, they have become almost their only way of socializing.
“Loneliness is not so much not having friends as feeling like you’re in a crowded square and you’re yelling, ‘Hello, I need help!’ and no one is listening to you. It’s not that they don’t pay attention to you, it’s that they don’t even hear you.
For this 20-year-old, interviewed during the pandemic, loneliness corresponds to the paradox of inhabiting a highly visible, crowded space. In it her voice fades into a gibberish. That square reminds us of the Facebook or Instagram wall. But are social networks the cause of this paradoxical experience?
Faced with the question of whether networks increase or reduce the feeling of loneliness, we must analyze the experiences derived from the growing use of digital technologies to relate to each other.
During the confinement of the past 2020, many of us experienced with frustration and anguish that our social life was restricted to messages and video calls. A stage in which the feeling of loneliness spread throughout the population and became more acute among young people, the most familiar with online communication.
The phrase “increasingly connected, but also more alone” has become a commonplace, attributing to mobile phones and social networks the increase in the experience of loneliness among young people. There is a suspicion that these media offer a substitute for the most authentic type of contact, which is face-to-face.
The “coldness” of screens, the “superficiality” of photographs or the “distance” in communication can hardly compete with the quality and warmth of a hug. Social networks, by promoting consumer overstimulation, contribute to generating more ephemeral and uncertain links.
The importance of networks to communicate
However, the testimony of many young people indicates that social networks are useful tools for interacting from a distance, building intimate relationships and coping with difficult times. Facilitating the feeling of control in communication by elaborating messages, shaping personal image or modulating availability can reduce anxiety and favor contact.
During the pandemic, many people have expressed saturation of digital media. However, these have been essential to maintain morale and personal relationships. The ambivalence and diversity of these tools are fundamental when it comes to understanding how they affect our social life, especially since it is evolving very quickly.
Well, prejudices about networks make it difficult to diagnose how they are transforming social life. They also make it difficult to imagine realistic strategies to remedy the tensions and discomforts of youthful sociability. In the investigation How do we connect? Mediation of social networks in the experience of loneliness of young people, which will soon be published by the Centro Reina Sofía-FAD, three dimensions are pointed out in which the way in which young people experience loneliness is being transformed.
The report presents the results of an investigation that took place over 18 months, between January 2020 and June 2021. Its general objective was to analyze the mediation of social networks in the experience of confinement of young people and their relationship with the experience of unwanted loneliness to learn about the role that social networks can play in preventing this feeling of unwanted loneliness.
Digital media and constant availability
In a first dimension, it is worth mentioning that, although digital media cannot ensure face-to-face contact, on the other hand they promise constant availability and simultaneity in social interaction.
Loneliness is expressed as a concern for being outside communication channels, as a fear of not being part of certain events or of being forgotten by others. A type of loneliness that is a feeling of disconnection, of not following the flow properly or not being up to date (or without coverage).
At a second level, loneliness is conceived as frustration over our significant links. Although it is the most common way in which this phenomenon has been understood and studied, social networks represent new ways of maintaining these links. And this implies tensions and frustrations.
Public Facebook or Instagram walls offer the ability to communicate with crowds in one click. This has generated a daily framework of recognition in personal relationships. Having few followers, not being tagged in a post, or being ridiculed for a photo all trigger feelings of loneliness.
Thus, in networks the quality of our links is tested as a complex game between availability and uncertainty. And in this the answer we want is not always found when we want it. The experience of loneliness beats between two different impulses: public exposure and the construction of a shelter where to be intimate with other people.
We reach a third level. Social media users constantly project who they are to others. By choosing the profile picture, for example, they express how they want to be seen while asking a question about what others are like and how they look. In this game of mirrors there are two opposing fantasies:
A “transparency fantasy” in which people would be able to honestly represent who they are.
A “fantasy of control”, generated by the possibilities of altering published images and texts. This allows you to adapt to the gaze of others, but carries with it the distrust of what others are like. Are these real or just characters or even ghost users?
Loneliness refers to a new dimension linked to existential fears. It implies facing the fear of inauthenticity and the difficulty of not knowing how to show ourselves and obtain recognition and value. This leads to deeper uncertainty. Not about the links, but about the truth of who we are and the possibility of communicating with other people.
These new meanings of the experience of loneliness lead to contradictions that young people must face in their daily lives. A 16-year-old girl expressed that her desire with networks was “to connect with other people without having to connect”, an ideal type of contact that does not have to bear the weight of ties. But she couldn’t deny the desire to bond.
The “connection” appears as a perfect metaphor for contemporary sociability. In it, digital mediations are becoming more naturalized. However, they generate tensions between the search for public exposure and intimate recollection. Between a luminous fantasy of transparency and the constant fear of being inauthentic or being controlled by others. Relationships between young people entail constant uncertainty: in such fast connectivity it is very easy to become disconnected.
This article is also signed by:
Asier Amezaga Etxebarria. Adjunct assistant professor, University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea
Carlos Lopez Carrasco. Researcher in sociology, Complutense University of Madrid
This article has been published in The Conversation
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.