It’s unfortunate to read sentences like this one:
“Social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace may provide people with a false sense of connection that ultimately increases loneliness in people who feel alone.”
That’s from a recent Newsweek article called “Lonely Planet: Isolation Increases in the U.S.” The premise of the story is that despite our increasing inter-connectivity online people are more socially isolated than ever before. The numbers tell a sad tale:
- 25 percent of U.S. residents said they have no one to discuss important matters with (that percentage has tripled since 1984)
- Social isolation can increase your risk of many ailments from high blood pressure to sleep disorders
- 25 percent of households in the U.S. are now single households (an increase from 7 percent since 1940)
- Lonely people tend to be less healthy – eating more fattening foods and drinking more alcohol
Clearly this is a trend in the U.S., but what does it have to do with social networking on the Web? Why does Newsweek connect Facebook usage with an increasing sense of isolation in the U.S.? Read further down and you come to this sentence:
“These [social networking] sites should serve as a supplement, but not replacement for face-to-face interaction.”
Yes, of course, isn’t that obvious? Newsweek is approaching social media as if there is a movement afoot to replace face-to-face interaction with online social networks. There isn’t. I don’t know anyone – not a single soul – working in social media that recommends or even suggests that social networking can replace real-life relationships.
What we have here is a common thread in traditional media circles (especially in print media) to serve up negative stories about social media and social networking – even when those connections are dubious. Newsweek isn’t the first publication to make this connection, just the latest. The story in Newsweek appears to have been prompted by a recent address by John T. Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and co-author the book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.“
USA Today wrote a story on Cacioppo’s talk – and notice that there isn’t one reference to social networks in the article. In fact, Cacioppo’s book isn’t about loneliness and social networks. Newsweek, however, adds the social networking angle even though Cacioppo says that social networks can supplement healthy relationships.
So don’t be alarmed. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter aren’t causing the U.S. to be a lonelier nation. There are many other factors to blame – such as the U.S. culture of individuality and our mobile society. You don’t increase your chances of being isolated by signing up for LinkedIn.
Social networking is a tool – a great way to connect and stay in touch with friends, family, co-workers, customers, clients and business partners. But it isn’t a substitute for face-to-face relationships.
The good news is that no one – with the exception of a few traditional media publications threatened by social media – is recommending you forgo a dinner with friends in favoring of sharing photographs with them on Flickr.