Understanding and Combating Social Isolation in the Digital Age
This article was written by Robert Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker, certified sex addiction therapist and author of several books, including “Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.”
In a world where people can have hundreds of Facebook friends while simultaneously connecting to a global web of communities, cultures and experiences, who could ever say that they feel lonely? And yet so many do. As a social worker this causes me to wonder: Beyond any given person’s ego strength and innate ability to self-regulate, what are the factors that make a person more or less likely to successfully negotiate the landscape of intimate emotional connection in today’s digital world?
One clear factor is a person’s fluency and comfort level with technology — a dynamic that often depends more on a person’s age than anything else. Think of it this way: Would Suzanne, a 24-year-old self-employed computer programmer who lives alone and works from home but interacts with friends and family almost constantly via text, games and social media feel alone and isolated? The answer is that she probably would not. But Jeanette, a 63-year-old widow whose social interactions are also mostly online very well might feel lonely and isolated, even if she’s got a ton of friends on Facebook and several grandkids who text her daily.
The primary difference between these two women is that Suzanne is a “digital native” and Jeanette is a “digital immigrant.” In other words, Suzanne grew up in an online world where texting, digital gaming, video chat and simultaneous virtual and real-world conversations were the norm, while Jeanette grew up in an analog world where face-to-face conversations and lengthy, late-night phone chats were the pathways to meaningful social interaction. Thus, Suzanne learned to be social in both the digital and real worlds, but Jeanette did not.
For Suzanne, chatting via text and social media is every bit as satisfying as chatting in person or by phone. For Jeanette, it’s a different story. Even though she might enjoy the scrapbooking aspects of Facebook (and the “likes” this gets), along with the updates her friends and family provide — letting her know where they are, who they are with and what they are doing — this interaction tends to leave her feeling left out rather than connected. Moreover, getting text messages from her grandkids feels, to her, like a weak attempt at meeting their obligation to stay in touch. So instead of being happy to hear from them she thinks, “If they really cared about me, they’d call, right?” Because that’s the way she learned to do it.
My point is that meaningful social connection looks different for different people — and age is often the defining factor, with younger and older people occasionally judging one another’s methods and forms of social bonding. I wrote at length about this idea in my book “Closer Together, Further Apart,” a social-work-focused volume about technology, intimacy and our newly evolved, digitally driven generation gap. I will summarize some of my conclusions below, with a few additional thoughts on combating social isolation in the 21st century.
First, however, I would like to point out that a great deal of research — in particular the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which looks at two distinct cohorts over the course of 75 years (essentially, the entire life span) — tells us that it’s not the number of connections a person has that’s most important; instead, it’s the quality of a person’s connections that matters most. Therefore, efforts at combating actual or perceived social isolation should focus on quality rather than quantity. In other words, the development of primary social connections (trusted family and close friends) is considerably more important than the development of secondary social connections (clubs, churches, workplace and other organizational affiliations) — though secondary social connections should not be undervalued, as they can create, if we are lucky, new primary connections.
The internet and related technologies provide a vast array of, often relatively superficial, secondary social connections. Things like chat rooms, gaming sites, social media and discussion forums all facilitate significant amounts of shallow social contact. Often, people interact somewhat regularly for long periods of time without actually knowing much at all about one another. Gamers, for instance, may not even know the real names of the people with whom they spend their virtual-world time. Unsurprisingly, this type of surface socialization is much less likely to lead to a primary social connection than attending church, taking a pottery class or playing on a softball team.
Nevertheless, primary social connections can and often do arise through online interactions. How many people do you know who met their significant other — or at least a new friend or two — through an online dating site? So yes, digital interactions can be quite powerful in terms of creating real-world connections.
Another important issue is that we are living in a different world today than that of a generation ago. The era of neighborhood picnics, regular gatherings of extended family, church socials and other communal events is rapidly disappearing. If I want to grab a quick dinner after work with one of my friends, I generally need to schedule it several days in advance, almost like an appointment with my doctor, because we are living in a busier world. If you don’t believe me, just think about how many emails you have to deal with at home after your workday ends. So much for free time, right? Plus, we’ve moved away from agrarian forms of communal living, replacing that with more tightly packed but less emotionally connected forms of urban living. Thus, grandmother no longer lives upstairs; instead, she’s hundreds of miles away.
But what does this mean in terms of social isolation? For many people, especially younger people, thanks to social media, texting, video chats and the like, not much. These individuals are well-versed and comfortable in the digital social milieu, and as long as they’re able to regularly stay in touch with their primary social connections, either in person or online, they’re fine. Digital connectivity helps them to be “in community” as if they were living next door to the people they love and care about the most. For others, however, usually older individuals who are not as knowledgeable about or comfortable with digital connectivity, feelings of isolation and disconnection may set in.
Just a few days ago I was talking with my friend Eve, whose only child, a much-adored daughter, had just left for college. Over coffee Eve lamented, “We used to talk constantly, nonstop, about every little thing. But since she’s gone away to college she hasn’t called me even once. We haven’t had a single conversation. I really miss her, and I can’t believe how lonely I am without her.” I murmured some understanding and supportive words, and something about kids needing to grow up and separate from their parents. And then I asked, “Is she texting?” Eve responded, “Yes. All day, every day. One little thing after another. And her Instagram feed is overflowing. But she never calls me!”
As it turns out, Eve has been getting a minimum of 10 texts per day from her daughter. But she still doesn’t feel like she and her daughter are having meaningful interactions — because she doesn’t understand that for young people text messages and Instagram posts are not just informational updates, they’re a meaningful way to stay in touch and sometimes an invitation to converse on a deeper and more intimate level, albeit digitally.
Once again, this is a generational issue more than anything else. Younger people typically see little difference between a conversation that takes place via text and a conversation that takes place in person. In their minds, chatting with a friend is chatting with a friend, regardless of the venue. Their parents and grandparents may not agree, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Plus, digital natives tend to multitask when they communicate — having a face-to-face conversation with one person while texting with another and also posting on social media. To them, this is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do. Digital immigrants, however, people who were raised in a world where giving anything less than 100 percent of your attention is viewed as rude, find this behavior unacceptable, wondering, “Why will you not give me your full attention? Do you not care about me?”
Despite these generational differences, older people can learn to enjoy, trust and connect in meaningful ways through technology. In fact, older individuals, if they are taught to use technology effectively, can benefit from digital interactions as much as if not more than younger people. For example, teaching lonely grandparents how to video chat with their grandkids facilitates connection in a way that would almost certainly not happen face to face (because the grandkids are so digitally oriented). Those same lonely grandparents, if they learn to email, text and play around on social media, can stay in touch with not only the grandkids but also other family members and probably a lot of friends from years gone by. Maybe a best friend and confidant in high school, who moved away shortly after graduation, can, via Facebook and FaceTime, once again be a close friend.
Regardless of a client’s age, technology can be an extremely effective tool for fighting social isolation. The trick for social workers and counselors is understanding a client’s needs, social attitudes and level of technical expertise. For instance, some younger clients are so used to quick and superficial digital conversations that they’ve grown phobic about sharing anything meaningful. These individuals will need to be coached in ways that help them open up, trust and develop deeper emotional bonds. Meanwhile, many older people are perfectly willing to trust and be intimate, but they feel lost in the digital universe. These individuals must be taught that technology can help them connect in meaningful ways and how to go about making that happen.
As stated in a recent American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare position paper, overcoming social isolation in an increasingly digital world requires considerable innovation in terms of both individual and societal-level interventions. To this end, it is important to recognize that every major demographic group in the United States — and worldwide, for that matter — is becoming more digitally fluent and dependent by the day. Laptops, tablets and smartphones are now almost ubiquitous. The downside, of course, is that digital devices can facilitate isolation through superficial interactions or fear of use. The upside, though, is that clients can be taught to overcome these shortcomings and to use technology to both create and maintain meaningful primary social connections.
Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, is senior vice president of national clinical development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee and The Right Step in Texas. He is the author of several books, including “Sex Addiction 101;” “Sex Addiction 101, The Workbook;” and “Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men.” He is also a co-author, with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, of Closer Together, Further Apart and Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. He contributes regularly to Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, Psych Central, Counselor magazine, MindBodyGreen.com, I Love Recovery Café and Addiction.com, among others. For more information, please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.