Our smartphones bring the world, and everyone in it, to our fingertips. It’s never been easier to connect with people, yet we live in a time of increased isolation.
My name is Hadiya. And sometimes, I feel lonely.
Even the people who know me best would be astounded by that assertion. Most people would label me an extrovert. I am confident. I have no trouble striking up a conversation with strangers, and do so — in bars, online, at the coffee shop. I play team sports once or twice a week. I have 1,605 Facebook friends — about 1,300 more than the average user. My life is very busy and full of lectures and concerts, meetings and comedy shows.
It’s completely acceptable, even a bit of a brag really, to talk about needing or wanting alone time. Michael Harris, the author of Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, writes about the transformative power of being alone, noting that “the capacity to be alone – properly alone – is one of life’s subtlest skills.” But admitting you don’t want to be alone, and that you are alone not out of choice but involuntarily is something completely different. Even in these over-sharing times, it is rare to hear someone say they’re lonely.
“In the last 35-40 years that I have done psychotherapy, I have had one person who came and said I’m lonely,” says Dr. Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist and professor at York University. But for almost all of his patients, loneliness is or was one of their primary issues. People will come in confessing to feeling depressed, anxious, ill, or heartbroken, but are loath to admit out loud that they are lonely. “People talk about depression, mental issues, relatively openly. I haven’t met people who talk about loneliness openly,” he says. Dr. Donna Ferguson, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, acknowledges the same reticence to admit loneliness: “I think that if you’re coming in, and just saying that you’re lonely, that there is a bit of a stigma. You’re lonely; it must be your fault.”
I feel that stigma. It took me a long time to decide whether to include that first sentence in this piece, to admit to my own bouts of loneliness. I typed it and deleted it so many times. Even though I’ve written confessional pieces before, pouring out my personal experiences of dating and the subtle racism I encountered as a Bay Street lawyer, this disclosure felt particularly scary. In a world where we are connected, instantly, to everything and everyone, admitting that you want or lack connection feels like an admission of personal failing. When you have a plethora of Facebook friends and people that you conceivably could message, admitting that you don’t feel closely connected to most of them feels like you’re to blame.
Yet, we know we are not alone, those of us who are lonely. Every week, there’s another story warning of the rise of loneliness and linking it to some ailment. Recently, it was the revelation that a review of over 148 studies found that loneliness is a greater public health concern than obesity, with a 50-per-cent increased risk of early death. Loneliness has even been linked to genetic responses, as our bodies may shut down genes that increase our sensitivity to cortisol, a hormone that lowers inflammation, leading to increased inflammation and, as a result, everything from heart disease to cancer. Just last month Britain announced it was creating a ministry for loneliness to combat the problem.
But what is making us lonelier? Why are we increasingly disconnected? Why do we see our friends less, and feel less close to them, despite having more means to talk and connect with them?
The most commonly cited culprit is the smartphone and the easy access to social media that it brings. We’ve all heard the warnings: Articles with titles like “Your iPhone is Making You Depressed” and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
I stare at my iPhone, directing my ire toward it, then pick it up and click on the Facebook app. I can’t help it; it’s a compulsion for me now. I ride the subway, my phone in my pocket. I try to leave it there, but it’s an irresistible crutch. Hunched over my phone, rather than making eye contact with a stranger. Feeling like the only one not on my phone. Despite not having cell service in the recesses of the tunnels, I reach for it, not once, but three times, my fingers automatically opening apps that I can’t access, denied by my lack of cell service.
Armed with the knowledge that my phone and social media could be contributing factors to loneliness, I decide to see if they can be put to good use. Rather than see the phone as my enemy, I want to try to use this potentially “dangerous” technology for good, not evil. I want this technology to improve my friendships and connections; use it as a tool for communication rather than isolation. I embark on what will be a months-long journey of self-discovery and research, simultaneously immersing myself in the various online tools built to help with connections and withdrawing myself from my reliance on social media. It would prove to be an extremely revelatory experience.
In their seminal work on loneliness, researchers Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau define loneliness as “a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those we want.” It’s a definition that resonates with me, as I have never felt more lonely than in the last four months of my last relationship, when the quality of the relationship and social bond that I wanted did not match what I had. I had a partner, a ready-made companion. I wasn’t supposed to feel lonely, I was supposed to feel connected. Not abandoned and disconnected. Feeling the chasm between my expectations and my reality made me feel incredibly, achingly alone for months.
There is an evolutionary purpose to this kind of transient loneliness. In their work on loneliness, John Cacioppo and William Patrick, describe how our ancestors relied upon social bonds for reasons of safety and for their genes to perpetuate through their offspring. Loneliness told them when those bonds were insufficient or endangered.
Much in the same way that physical pain prompts a change in behaviour — burning skin telling you to remove your hand from the hot pan — loneliness evolved as a stimulus to change action and improve social connections, prompting you to reach outwards, to strengthen weakened or weakening bonds. Cacioppo and Patrick liken it to a thermostat, “turning on and off distress signals, depending on whether our individual need for connection is being met.” Thus, much like physical pain, loneliness serves as a warning that you need social connection, and hopefully triggers a change.
The link to physical pain is more than an analogy. Brain imaging studies show that the same brain regions are activated when we experience social rejection and isolation and when we experience emotional responses to physical pain. Loneliness serves as both a mental and physical call to action. And ignoring that call can have a serious physical and social impact, leading to more long-term, chronic loneliness.
There is a series of photographs by artist Eric Pickersgill that perfectly captures this very modern paradox of being together, but alone, connected but disconnected. It is a series of beautiful black and white photos, called Removed. In it, Pickersgill takes subjects as they are, has them hold still, and removes their phones from their hands. What is left is haunting. A just-married couple, sitting on the hood of their car, turned away from each other, intently gazing at their hands. A mother and daughter, sitting together on the couch but again turned away from each other, and toward the missing devices.
Pickersgill drew inspiration for the series when he was a newlywed sitting in a coffee shop in a city away from his wife, watching a family interact. “One person in the group didn’t have a phone — the mom was just staring out the window. It made the contrast so apparent, right within that family dynamic, that you could see what one person was experiencing while the majority were all engaged in their hands. I think being away and missing the company of people that I was close to made me look at them in a more judgmental way — they’re wasting so much time that they have with one another,” he told me over the phone.
Our smartphones have gone from curiosities to conveniences to ubiquitous appendages. As someone who likes the vanguard of tech, I purchased my first smartphone in 2008, then in the minority. Now, a smartphone is the norm — according to a 2016 Statistics Canada report, 76 per cent of us own a smartphone, up from 55 per cent only two years prior. Smartphone penetration is even stronger in the younger generation — 94 per cent of 15-34 year olds own one.
Researchers have found that smartphone users interact with their phones, on average, 85 times per day, from the minute we wake up, to the time we go to sleep, and sometimes, in the middle of the night. The times that I have forgotten my phone, I’ve felt a low-level buzz of anxiety the whole day – is someone trying to reach me, and can’t? Am I missing an important email or text? What’s happening on Twitter? I’ll reach instinctively into my bag or pocket for my phone, only to find it absent, spiking my heart rate and blood pressure once again.
This is not to say that phones are all bad, or that we are all obsessed. A 2014 study that observed people’s use of phones in public spaces found quite low rates, and found that people tended to use their cellphones or tablets when they were alone. This, according to Dr. Anabel Quan-Haase, a professor at Western University and author of Technology & Society, suggests that we use our phones to fill gaps in our face time and human interactions, not replace them.
But our phones, and their constant beckoning are often our life’s biggest distractions. The mere presence of your smartphone, on the table or even in your bag, has been shown to distract you and reduce your available cognitive capacity. This can mean less presence, and less focus in our interactions with actual humans.
Social media use has mirrored our increasing reliance on phones. Less than ten years ago, social media use didn’t even make it into a Statistics Canada Canadian Internet Use survey — in 2008, blogging, chatting on instant messenger and downloading were profiled activities. Now, 63 per cent of the country’s population uses social media, with Facebook the most popular site (75-per-cent penetration rate), followed by Twitter (37 per cent) and Instagram (34 per cent).
Again, social media isn’t all bad; 77 per cent of Canadians feel that technology helps them communicate with other people. In fact, those who use social media sites, like Facebook or Twitter, are actually more likely to report seeing their friends in person a few or more times a week than those who do not use these sites. I find that social media helps with my more distant friendships, friends from past worlds, often in other cities. When we meet for a coffee in five years, or bump into each other on the street, I have a sense of what has happened in their lives since I last saw them. It also makes it easier to pick up friendships with people who have moved back into town or made their way back into your world.
But what social media does do, and does dangerously well, is highlight the gap between the connections we wish we had, and the ones we do have — the definition of loneliness.
This propensity for social comparison on social media is in part what inspired The Loneliness Project, a website started last fall by Marissa Korda, a 25-year-old graphic designer in Toronto. “I recognized that everyone struggles with loneliness, either chronically or time to time, and nobody ever talks about it,” she says. “Instead, everybody is just busy posting pictures on Instagram of their perfect pets and their delicious meals, and their cute partners and their beautiful homes, where all the mess is just shoved out of the frame photo.”
When she put out a call on Facebook for stories, she wasn’t expecting much response. “I was thinking that I would have to coerce people, friends and family, into submitting. I got over 100 in less than a week,” she tells me. In the first month that the site was live, she received 800 stories. She now posts three stories a week.
Social media is a recurring theme in these stories. One user, aged 25, writes, “all over social media, I saw my friends living their lives, enjoying their jobs, getting into serious relationships, moving into their own apartments. I felt stunted.” Another, age 26, says “sometimes I even get jealous when I see people on Facebook taking selfies with each other or even tagging one another in posts because that rarely, if ever, happens to me.” Another user, age 25, says that loneliness means “watching people at work, on social media, in public, go about their busy, seemingly full lives. They always have someone around, have plans with someone, are doing something exciting. They never seem to have any time for me. I feel like I’m invisible a lot of the time, tired of monotony, tired of watching everyone live the lives I want so desperately for myself.”
It is one of the failed promises of social media that something that is supposed to keep us constantly connected should so often deliver the completely opposite effect. How prone we are to this effect may also depend on how we each choose to use and engage with social media. And that is where I began my adventures in social media land.
One study found that passive use of Facebook (browsing, creeping, and not engaging) is shown to be more harmful than being an active user liking and commenting and interacting with other users. The research on this is mixed, with some studies saying social media can enhance relationships, and others saying it can cause loneliness, because the virtual world is not the real one. For those who already have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to connection, social media can be a useful extra tool. But for those who don’t, it can serve a different function.
I experimented with this notion of how usage impacts the psychological outcome, trying to be an extra-engaged user one week, and abstaining from social media the next. I realized that I was already a pretty engaged user. Plus, given the volume of people I am linked to, I found it exhausting to be a super user. It didn’t make me feel more connected. In the week without social media, I experienced some fear of missing out for the first couple of days, but didn’t really miss it or feel less connected as a result. When I finally rejoined Facebook, I became less inclined to check it, and mindless browsing through my feed no longer carried the appeal that it used to. Taking a break reminded me that the content wasn’t going anywhere. Now, months after the experiment, I log in far less frequently, mostly to check notifications, and to find interesting events to attend that have been flagged by my friends.
I consider using one of the virtual AI friend apps, but I know it won’t work for me. There are too many downsides to relying on a friendship that is not real.
Sociologist and author Robert Putnam argued in his prophetic book Bowling Alone that online interactions take people away from face to face, in-person contact. Do these apps serve as a replacement for real connection, or do they act as a supplement? Can they really provide different thoughts, and ideas, when they are described as learning from you and matching your personality? One of the things I love about my real friends is that they are different from me, and I learn from them — new information, new ideas, new ways of doing things and approaching problems. While a 2017 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that engaging with anthropomorphic products, such as Siri or a smiling Roomba, can partially mitigate social exclusion, a reminder that these products are not real people ends the illusion. According to the study’s authors, “Once individuals are reminded that the product is not actually alive, the effect disappears.” Or, as Dr. Rokach says, “All the likes you may get cannot give you hug.”
I lean towards apps and sites that help me reach people in real life. One of my early attempts predating this experiment is with Yes New Friends, a friendship matchmaking service created by Amy Wood, a 31-year-old marketing creative and co-head of creative agency 100 Acre Wood. Introduced by a mutual friend, I immediately volunteered to be matched in the beta pilot. In the real world, as my friends coupled off and procreated, spending time with them became harder to coordinate, and I was eager to meet women in my same life situation, with visions of a Sex and the City-esque posse dancing in my head. I also liked the idea that finding a potential friend would be taken out of my hands, but that a human would be involved in the interaction.
“It was designed for my friends, really,” Wood says. “I started off matching people I knew, or had connection with. But by the time I got to a hundred requests, and started to get requests from strangers, I realized that there was a real demand for this.” She has around 5,000 people interested in the next round of Yes New Friends, and is working with a developer on an iOS app that will allow her to make this project available on a larger scale.
As a beta user, I filled out my profile, and a week later, received a brightly coloured email notification alerting me that I had a friend match, and giving me a link to message my new friend on our friendship page, with a nine-day window to start conversation. I was matched with Ariel, a newly married tech-savvy woman in her early 30s, who shares my love of films, comedy and music.
I recently asked Ariel why she signed up, and her reasons are quite like mine: loneliness and declining connection. “It was just starting to take a lot of time to plan and connect and see people on a regular basis,” she says. “I had friends who were married and settled down with kids, and that wasn’t me — I was married, but no kids, and it was becoming harder and harder to see those people. My friends in my situation or single were starting to leave the city. I felt like I was kind of in the middle of these two groups. I was feeling disconnected overall, and was looking for real-life opportunities for social interaction. Social media helped me feel connected in a broader sense, in the world, but it was lacking the more local opportunities to get out. But it pointed me in the direction of what I wanted.”
More recently, post-breakup, I’ve signed up for a few sites that are essentially Tinder for female friendship. On Bumble, a dating site started by an ex-Tinder employee, users can turn on BumbleBFF, a setting that lets them find friends in the same way they find dates — swiping on pictures and short profiles. Hey!Vina has a similar swiping concept, but is for female friendship only, and has more extensive profile materials — you can take quizzes that identify your friendship language and aura colour, and can identify communities you belong to. I select DIY enthusiasts, Lit Lovers, Entrepreneurs, SciFi Sisters, and Volunteers.
I spoke with Olivia June, CEO and Founder of Hey!Vina about when she knew that she had a hit on her hands. “We had $10,000 and it was two of us in our living room. It took off like crazy. The first week we had 100,000 women sign up to join the platform. We did that with no marketing budget. Every person I would tell what I was working on, their response was “Oh my god, I need this.” Since their global launch in October 2016, they’ve built Hey!Vina communities in 158 countries around the world. While 75 per cent of their users fall between 22-39, they have very strong communities in younger college demographics, and women in their 60s in Orlando, Florida.
Carmelina, 28, had used Bumble for dating, but when she moved to St. Catharines, Ont. a friend suggested Bumble BFF. She purposely reads profiles first, and then looks at a few pictures if the profile jives with her. The women who say “they just want to have girls’ night in with wine, and like yoga and going on hikes” are not for her. “Tell me what you’re about,“ she says. She’s met three people in a month through this method. “I find it almost easier to choose people to be my friends. I’m not trying to make as many friends as possible, I’m trying to make better friends.”
Using Hey!Vina, I realize that I am just as picky swiping through friends as I am swiping for dates. While the use of only one photo, most of them shots of users’ faces, don’t allow you to glean much from a user, I look for those who’ve used a unique photo, or have a clever or fulsome description — anything that indicates quirkiness or effort. I try to set aside any biases I have, for example, my tendency to judge anyone who hasn’t filled in their description yet, but I still make quick judgments. I match with Valentina, whose face is obscured with a cool background. She is a glass blower in her early 30s who describes herself as “an artsy woman.” I have learned from my dating experiences not to communicate with too many people at one time, so I send off a quick hello, and stop swiping. But, much like a dating site, our conversation is lacking and peters off. I also find the user base younger and small; the same users pop up repeatedly.
I also take the plunge into Bumble BFF. I describe myself as a reformed lawyer, researcher and journalist looking to meet feminist folks who value logic and whimsy, and include a photo of myself dressed as a Rubiks Cube to show that I am fun. I note that I sport occasionally, dabble in cryptic crosswords, and try to contribute at least three answers a week to my trivia team. Bumble BFF uses the same pictures from your Bumble dating profile, if you have one, so I swipe left on a lot of pursed lips, selfies, cleavage and duck faces. People with nothing in their bio also get a pass — I’m serious about this friendship business. I swipe right on a user named Ren, who has a smiling face, cool her antics with a lion statue at the Great Wall, and is into what she describes as urban hiking. We match, and she opens with a compliment about my Rubiks Cube costume. I like her already. Our first friend date goes swimmingly — she is hilarious, has great hair tips, and we have a lot of similarities. We make plans to meet again the next week after the weekend, and head to the Guillermo Del Toro exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Our next adventure will be a screening of Black Panther.
Finally, I sit back and take stock of how I can use my phone to improve my existing friendships. I remind myself that we are all busy, and how much I like it when my friends call and suggest things to do. I decide to just be that person for them, to use my powers of organization to our mutual benefit. I start calling my best friend more often, and it has the added effect that she starts calling me more as well. I get Siri to remind me to call and see certain friends regularly. I block off certain evenings in my calendar with a new colour-coded block labeled, Friend Hang, with the same repeating feature I use for my Sunday Frisbee games, and make sure that I fill those slots. I turn Twitter friends into real live ones, planning coffees and lunches. I use Facebook to find events that my friends are interested in or attending and make plans to meet them there. I use the myriad scheduling and planning features available to me, not just for work, but for friendship. I combine existing activities, like going to the gym, with friendship. I start attending the gym with my friend Sarah, which increases the time we spend together and talk, both at the gym and outside of it. I feel closer to her in the three months that we’ve been doing so than I ever have before. By making and planning for friendship maintenance, my expectations more closely mirror my reality.
Even after a few months experimenting in what social media offers to cure loneliness, I don’t have the answers, and I can’t tell you that you or I won’t ever be lonely. But I no longer see my phone as an evil loneliness machine. I have been able to use my phone and social media to do more of the things that increase my connection to other humans – meet them, see them, talk with them, and interact with them. It has to be a conscious choice not to let your phone take you down the path of passive engagement and superficial communication. But when loneliness is described as being worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it’s a choice that’s necessary, not only for your own health, but for our collective benefit. In a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented and polarized, we need each other, and connection, more than ever.
Hadiya Roderique is a lawyer currently completing her PhD at the Rotman School of Management. This piece was part of her Massey College Internship with the National Post.
Eric Pickersgill on his series of photographs, used throughout this piece: Removed is a series of large format black and white photographs that are of individuals performing as if they are using their devices although their phones and tablets have been physically removed from their hands moments prior to the exposure. The work is striking when seen online however it becomes transformational when experienced in person as exhibition prints. The photographs operate as mirrors that help viewers question their own use of technology. The smartphone and the internet will be known as the industrial revolution of our time and these photographs represent the worldwide digital transition.