A report released this month by counselling organisation Relate gives some sad and worrying statistics about just how many people in the UK feel alone, with one in five of us experiencing loneliness and one in eight saying they have no close friends at all.
Particularly notable is that young people appear to be the most isolated of all, with nearly a third (32%) of people aged 16 to 24 admitting they always or often feel lonely, compared to just 11% of over-65s experiencing similar feelings.
People will have their own theories as to why people in young adulthood with their whole lives ahead of them appear to be experiencing more loneliness than those often in retirement homes or living alone following a bereavement. The Daily Mail has presented the information in a way that suggests social media is a significant factor in young people’s loneliness, but there is no evidence of this in the piece other than anecdotes from a quoted counsellor. The Relate report makes no mention of social media in its finding.
The Mail, which was recently deemed to be “generally unreliable” by reference website Wikipedia, has something of a tendency to play on hearsay and people’s fears and come to conclusions that are often dubious or plain inaccurate. With 45% of the newspaper’s print readership being aged 65 or older (compared to only 21% for both The Guardian and The Financial Times), it’s perhaps not surprising that the study is reported in a way that implies that older people are generally coping better with loneliness than their younger counterparts, and that social media, which is only used by a quarter of over-65s, is to blame.
There’s no doubt that social media can leave us feeling bitter, frustrated, jealous and, yes, lonely. Everything people say on it is boastful. It’s all ‘look where I am’, ‘look what I’m doing’, ‘read what I’m saying – isn’t it witty, profound and insightful?’ Social media users only share the highlights of their lives, projecting what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan might have called their ‘Ideal-I’.
Nobody uses Facebook to tell us that they’re eating a Pot Noodle and watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, or if they do it will be in a humorously self-depreciating way that ultimately comes back to egocentricity and attention seeking. Undoubtedly, sites like Facebook can cause us to look at other people’s lives and feel socially inferior, or see all sorts of political and social murmurings we don’t agree with and then feel loneliness in a ‘nobody understands me’ kind of way.
Social media, however, is just a by-product of youthful living, and I wonder whether the real reason young people feel lonely is because of the human nature of being at that age. Personally, I felt at my loneliest between the ages of about 14 to 20, and we didn’t have social media then. What we did have then was the same impressionable, vulnerable teenage minds that scientists know of and regularly study.
Sites like Facebook and Instagram give us instant exposure to the most glamorous aspects of other people’s lives, so it’s no wonder they can increase loneliness. To blame them for young people’s feelings of isolation, however, is lazy and is failing to deal with the root cause of loneliness – the human psyche – and is neglecting the often serious repercussions of feelings of inferiority.