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Social media feels like friendship, right? "Friends on Facebook" means something. Frequent interaction on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook feels solid and real and rewarding, doesn't it? It seems to mean something significant. And it does. But is it replacing actual friendship, actual human connection? And in doing so, does social media actually make us lonelier?
Psychologist and cultural analyst Sherry Turkle argues "yes it does" in her fascinating TED talk "Connected, But Alone?" Turkle argues that social media has "changed who we are" and that "we're setting ourselves up for trouble [not only] in how we relate to each other [but also] how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection" (source). She explains that we can "customize our lives" by controlling "where we put our attention," which results in a "new way of being alone together" (source).
This is familiar. This is what happens when I'm sitting at a meeting or dinner and get bored. What do I want to do? Check my phone. I feel compelled to engage with my companions when and how I want. I want to "check out" when I'm bored, irritated, upset. It takes conscious effort to refuse to check the damn thing. In fact, I no longer leave my phone on the restaurant table (unless I'm waiting for something critical) and I often leave it in the car or my bedroom to ensure I won't get sucked in to the scenario above.
Beyond the ability to choose where we put our attention on a moment-to-moment basis to only that which "interests us," Turkle also believes that new technologies "give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship" because we are able to "keep people at a distance" (source). Rather than show our authentic, messy selves, we are able to put forward the cleaned-up, edited version: "Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right" (source).
Why is this problematic?
Well, because it isn't real: "Human relationships are rich and they're messy and they're demanding. And we clean them up with technology." In this way, we end up "hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other" (source).
Turkle claims that texting and social media are excellent for quick messages and "checking in," but "they don't really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other" (source). Not only that, we can grow more isolated and lonely as we replace actual conversation and friendship with electronic banter and social media. We also lose the ability to reflect on ourselves and enjoy being alone. We begin to need the constant interaction and instant feedback of "likes" or "comments" or the "ping" of our phones.
Basically, she argues that we cannot stand being alone. The moment we're alone we feel uncomfortable and vulnerable and strange, so we reach out to social media. We crave the connection, but the more we "connect" the more we "set ourselves up to be isolated" (source). She summarizes this process as "I share therefore I am," explaining "we use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we're having them. So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it's: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text. The problem with this new regime of 'I share therefore I am' is that, if we don't have connection, we don't feel like ourselves" (source).
And so, if the only time we feel comfortable, "like ourselves" and connected is when we are engaged with somebody else, we lose the ability to enjoy solitude and "slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone." But according to Turkle, the opposite is actually true: "If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely. And if we don't teach our children to be alone, they're only going to know how to be lonely" (source).
So what do we do about it?
Well, Turkle suggests to "start thinking of solitude as a good thing" and to even "make room for it" (source). She suggests creating "sacred" places at home and work where electronic devices are always turned off. These places are designated for conversation. She urges us to make time to "think" and "talk about the things that really matter" and to "really… listen to each other… even the boring bits" (source).
As parents, we need to teach our kids how to use technology in an empowering way. Rather than a tool to avoid real human interaction and uncomfortable feelings, technology should be used in service to our greater selves, as a way to enhance rather than diminish the richness of our friendships, connections and humanity.