Does Facebook Cause Loneliness? Short answer, No. Why Are We Discussing this? Long Answer Below.

There is yet another article, this time in the Atlantic, asking the question “Does Facebook cause loneliness?” Like many articles on this topic, it ignores an enormous amount of data which –at a minimum- says, nope. (In fact, the main empirical article cited in the paper also says no). Research by many people (most importantly Keith Hampton) show again and again that Internet/Facebook users are less isolated than people who don’t use social media. Yes, there are complicated interaction effects but the simplest empirical answer to the simple form of the question is … no. By most standards of reasonable evidence, the answer is pretty much out there (even if ignored by most articles on the topic).

Why, then, is this question repeatedly invoked? I have a few thoughts on this. Here they are in a hastily written form (on my way to the airport!)

First, the findings I talk about refer to individual level effects. There are also societal effects to consider—and those are harder to measure. Maybe individual Facebook users are not less isolated than non-Facebook users, but maybe we have become more isolated as a society during the period that mediated-sociality has risen.

The answer to that question is yes, at least for closer ties. We are, on average, more isolated, at least in terms of strong ties. Three separate studies say so–and as we say in social sciences, once is a question, twice is a coincidence, thrice is a finding. (That is the General Social Survey with follow-up here, Pew Internet studies written up by Keith Hampton (with others) and a recent study by Matt Brashears).

I also have a paper (still) under review which shows –using the best dataset available—that Internet users fared better than non-Internet users during this period of increasing isolation. In other words, yes, we have less close friends than before, but Internet users are doing better at bucking this trend. I have a good deal of empirical probing of why this is so—I’ll try to write about it later. In short, I think this is because we are shifting from “ascribed ties” –people you inherit as close ties such as your family and your neighbors—to “achieved ties” –people you connect based on shared affinities and with whom you interact using multiple means of communication. It’s clear why Internet plays into this and fights off isolation. People who can use the Internet better to find and/or keep in touch with people with whom they share affinities with are more likely to be able to compensate for losing the neighborhood/family ties.

What data I’ve seen makes a strong case that social isolation is increased by factors like suburbanization, long-commutes, long work hours, decline of community and civic institutions, etc—not online sociality. As I argued, what data we do have argues that social media (and Facebook) works against this.

So, why so many articles like this which concentrate on the social media aspect (rather than things that appear to be a lot more directly related empirically to isolation)? Why does this question resonate so strongly?

I speculate that there are three reasons. Two are straightforward. Third is something I’m working through empirically and conceptually.

One, we are indeed more isolated, on average. That is true. And since increasing amounts of sociality are conducted –partially—online, it is a natural human tendency to create a narrative from two occurrences that follow each other. We are more online + we are more isolated = we are more isolated because we are more online. This particular conclusion is, in my read of all the available data, wrong but humans are narrative engines. We make stories whenever we see co-occurrences. (“I had a bad feeling in the morning and I broke a mirror before going out–then I had my car accident.” )

Two, face-to-face sociality *is* the bedrock of human communication. A baby few days old will respond differently to a figure in the shape of a human face compared with the same elements arranged randomly. There is something imitable about smiling with a friend. There’s just no replacement for hugging someone. That does not mean that people cannot have meaningful interactions that are not face-to-face, nor does it mean that online interaction is causing less face-to-face interaction. (As I said, data shows that people who interact online socially *on average* also interact more offline socially. It is a more-more setting. More social people are more social—online or offline.)

The third reason that I think such articles are still so popular is a phenomon that I’ve dubbed cyberasociality.

Cyberasociality is the inability or unwillingness of some people to relate toothers via social media as they do when physically-present. (Tufekci, 2010)

I’ve already published a bit about it (here) and I have an article I wrote about it that I will probably just put in my blog before it finishes going through the academic cycle. (Oh, what the heck, Internet. Here’s my unpublished paper on this. I presented these findings at last year’s American Sociological Association conference).

My argument is, briefly this: Just like we convert text (visual) into language in our head (which is all oral in the brain), we need to convert mediated-interaction to that visceral kind of sociality in our brain. And not everyone can do this equally well. And people who are cyberasocial are driving this discussion.

For example, reading is a hack of the brain. It is hijacking our visual systems and appending them to our oral/language centers (All human language is primarily oral. Writing is a recent, thin, barely-hanging there add-on). That is why you don’t need to train ordinary children to speak, but you need to train all children to read. Reading is something we use our cognitive capacity and neural plasticity to achieve. It is not an innate human ability.

Similarly, face-to-face sociality is a deeply-embedded feature. We react to faces and immediate presence in a very strong, very visceral sense. Online –and all mediated– sociality needs a similar hack into our sociality systems. We need to convert mediated-interaction to the same kind of unmediated interaction version we have to get evoke a similar reaction to “present in-person” sociality.

And I believe that this is easier for some people than others. Some are more disposed. There are also questions of technical skill, access, usability, etc. But I believe there is also an underlying personality variation as well.

My data says this is not a cohort effect. I’ve found strong and consistent distinctions among the college-age population. It’s simply not that the young are cybersocial and the old are not. It’s that different people are differently cybersocial. And for those who are cyberasocial, trying to describe online social interaction as “real” is like trying to describe colors on a oil-painting to someone who is color-blind indoors-and then to claim that there is a connection between the colors on the palette to colors of a sunny day.

They look, they squint, they think, they ponder and simply decide everyone else is crazy. There is a lot more to say but I’ll end with a quote from my (unpublished) paper. (My earlier published paper is here) :

I define the topic of my paper as explaining this:

Hardly another month goes by in which there isn’t a new article or book released on the
question of whether the Internet brings us together or separates us. Alternating between
lamentations by pundits on how social media tools are allegedly hollowing out our relationships
(Deresiewicz 2009; Mallaby 2006, Turkle, 2011), or by breathless reporting in newspapers about
how everything is now online, the debate refuses to die, and often seems unaffected by empirical
research on these topics.

And after going through the empirical findings, I speculate that “cyberasociality” is a real phenomenon, that it is not a cohort/age effect, and that for some people, online sociality is hard to comprehend because of deep reasons including being less disposed to converting mediated-sociality to broader sociality.

It remains a possibility that there are people for whom text is unable to evoke the same deep reaction embodied physically co-present interaction arouses. Such an inability, or an unwillingness, could be seen akin to another modern ailment, that of dyslexia (Wolf, 2007). The ability to convert alphabetical symbols to words, and then to seamlessly convert those words into meanings, is one of the more remarkable feats of the human brain and is mastered by most who are given persistent and competent instruction. However, for some segment of the population, this leap may remain unattainable and pose great difficulty even though the person in question may not suffer from any other disadvantage such as technological incompetence or inability or fear of using computers for instrumental purposes.

Whatever causes dyslexia, it would not have been detectable in a pre-literate population as among such people, words are always and only just sounds. In fact, linguists often caution against our tendency to equate words with letters and remind us that language is primarily aural and the transition to visual language is a late development. (Ong, 2004). Dyslexia emerges as a disadvantage only as a society incorporates the ease of use of the written word into the expected competencies into its portfolio, similarly, the increasing incorporation of online-sociality may expose a segment of the population that is similarly disadvantaged from being able to use these technologies as effectively as others.

Thus, conceptually, I propose a modern condition, named cyberasociality, which represents the possibility that some segment of the population remain unable or unwilling to relate to others via social media as they do when physically-present; and that this is not necessarily related to their general levels of sociality or to their competence with or use of computers or similar digital devices.

Finally, these findings may shed light on why the debate about the possibility of establishing deep bonds online refuses to die in spite of empirical findings that show that this is actually happening, at least for a segment of the population. It is possible that there are people who are deeply cyberasocial and are universalizing their subjective experience as the human norm, and thus are persistent in their claims that it is simply not possible to establish meaningful friendships using these technologies. Almost akin to a colorblind person insisting that all this talk of red and green must just reflect something superficial or made-up, and simply does not reflect a real division, the cyberasocial continue to write newspaper articles and even books lamenting the spread of these technologies. That is not to say that these technologies are not ever disruptive of sociality but that their effect may be much more complicated as some of the critics would claim.

Finally, I want to really, really emphasize that my argument is not a judgement or a statement of what’s inferior. I think this is part of normal human variation. I started looking into this as I was more curious about why this debate seemed to never die and this, in my opinion, is part of the story.

PS. Will add more links later! On my way to the airport now:-)

24 thoughts on “Does Facebook Cause Loneliness? Short answer, No. Why Are We Discussing this? Long Answer Below.

  1. Luke Fernandez

    I wonder if some of your approach could also be used to shed light on another debate that doesn’t seem to be reaching closure anytime soon — that is, whether the internet is making us smarter. My understanding is that there is “normal human variation” in people’s ability to multi-task and to tolerate interruption. If that’s true one might find a similar distribution of acolytes: some following Kathy Davidson (Now You See It) who is fairly receptive to the interruptive qualities of the internet and other’s because of a different wired constitution, following Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) et al who lament the twilight of technologies (like the book) that foster ‘deep reading’ and flow.

    Reply
  2. ismail Nooraddini

    I find it odd how we relentlessly blame FB, and ignore other decaying institutions of modernity. These articles seem to have no problem pinning our increasing levels of isolation of isolation to one computer program. What about religion, family, government, etc? Its odd how these institutions are always left out of the equation.

    Reply
    1. Virgil Adkins

      Hello Ismail,

      I have to concur with your comment when you wrote “What about religion, family, government, etc? It’s odd how these institutions are always left out of the equation”, Ismail Nooraddini, personal communication, April 2012.

      I have to reflect back to the early frontier days in America when all a family had was pretty each other, and then the larger community for Sunday worship services (if they were near enough to other land owners or small settlements). During that early time in our nation’s development, families engaged almost daily in a great deal of verbal communication, storytelling, and sharing the family dinner table together. Families and communities were by and large more close knit than they generally are today. This was primarily because they simply had to be more cohesive during these early times, and secondly, because they did not have all of the societal distractions and electronic and technological interventions of today’s’ modern society. So, you are correct Ismail, facebook is far from deserving the blame, there is a whole other set of dynamics that are being excluded from the equation. Thanks Ismail!

      Virgil Adkins

      Reply
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  4. ingrid

    Interesting piece. I mostly agree with your thesis that Facebook is effectively a band-aid for increasing social fragmentation – already described long ago in Baudrillard’s thesis of the ‘implosion of the social into the media.’
    But there are two points I do find problematic:

    1. that there is such a thing as ‘cyberasociality’ that stems from a sort of biological incapability or unwillingness by the individual to move human sociality online. As with dyslexia, this is only a spurious medical label put upon a symptom of a society exceedingly premised on upward mobility around literacy. And while you try to dispel the idea that cyberasociality connotes inferiority, your biologicalization of this social symptom does still cast it in terms of a biological (or even a bizarrely voluntary!) defect.

    2. that Facebook has nothing to do with social fragmentation itself. But one would need to take heed to the fact that Facebook is part of the larger dissemination of cybernetic, mobile, and interactive technologies that are exactly also the cause of the very possibility of modern social fragmentation. So in terms of its aesthetics – ie. how the medium is here also the message of social division and fragmentation, Facebook does have a role to play in the naturalization of such a divisive and fragmented social order.

    Reply
    1. sean

      yes – agreed ingrid. The other “wait-a-sec” moment I had reading this (interesting!) piece, was the legitimating tone the claim about language being oral/aural and reading involving some cognitive ingenuity and steadfast instruction gave to parts of the argument. As far as I know, this is more of a live question than established narrative. I’d have to dig for references since this isn’t my area of expertise, but I was under the impression a good many experts thought verbal language developed out of gestural language or at the very least developed enough alongside it to complicate a story of ‘hacking’ the aural/oral neuro-route.

      Reply
  5. Neha Narula

    Hi, there’s something i’m a bit confused about — it seems the answer to the question you pose in your title actually might be yes — given that overall, people in society are more isolated. Even though internet users might have more strong ties than those who don’t use such services, it could be that they would have even more if social media was less prevalent overall. The internet might be driving us all down, so to speak, yet those who choose to use it fare better than those who don’t.

    Are there any studies that try to answer this question? Perhaps by looking historically at how social interaction has changed?

    Reply
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  7. Arwen

    Very interesting. I wonder if the cyber-social cohort is also good at reading fiction and forming emotional attachments to the characters.

    Reply
    1. Rebecca

      That occurred to me, as well. They seem like related skill-sets — the ability to convert a visual representation of language into something so real that it creates an emotional connection.

      Reply
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  9. jeannette

    A thoughtful argument and I’m interested in learning more about the methods and outcomes for the paper that is still under review (with ascribed/achieved ties). Can you share via backchannel?

    Reply
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  11. Jwolf

    Thanks very much for injecting the best data the social sciences have to offer into these questions.

    Some comments.

    You are attempting to answer the question of whether facebook causes loneliness, and are convincingly refuting it, IF we think loneliness can be understood in terms of the number of people we interact with. Do you think that’s the best way to understand the issue of loneliness?

    Also, there is a different line of argument that would say that facebook isn’t making us more lonely, but rather more narcissistic. That would be what I fear, as there has been a huge spike in narcissism in the past decade (whether this is cause or effect of course, has not been determined)

    I find your point about cyberasociality very interesting. What about the ways though in which human face to face conversation necessarily takes advantage of certain cues that allow for seamless an fluid interaction. The way this pales in comparison to chat and text based forms of communication is not due to an inability to identify texting as a type of social interaction, but an inability to utilize all the automatic abilities we have when in engaged in conversation (eye contact, tone of voice, fluidity). Many people spend so much time revising text messages and being amazed at how hard it is to say something right, but ignore the fact that we never have time to revise our words in conversation, and we more or less express what we want to say.

    Reply
  12. Patrick Hsieh

    Great article! Also, I would like to point out that there is a methodological issue behind this debate: whether the GSS name generator really tap into the support networks of respondents.

    I would say no, while it’s a reliable instrument, it is not necessarily valid. Making such a sensational argument based on an only a biased glance of one’s support networks is just not convincing (i.e. Macpherson et al 2006).

    Patrick

    Reply
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  15. Dave

    I may be prejudging this unfairly (haven’t read the paper yet), but you do seem to be assuming quantity of ‘friends’/’social interactions’ online is the most important measure, without attending to the qualitiative dimension. Also (as in most social science) does this not rely heavily on the flawed measure of self-reporting, especially of an unwanted trait?

    How do your findings square with the recent study that showed correlation between number of friends on Facebook and narcissistic personality?

    Reply
  16. Virgil Adkins

    Hello,

    After searching for an article related to the social media topic I came across this one, and it is quite compelling in its essence. In particular, your statement “And after going through the empirical findings, I speculate that “cyberasociality” is a real phenomenon, that it is not a cohort/age effect, and that for some people, online sociality is hard to comprehend because of deep reasons including being less disposed to converting mediated-sociality to broader sociality.” Zeynep Tufekci, personal communication, April 2012.

    I am an individual that could be labeled as “cyberasocial”. I do not belong to or subscribe to any form of social media. In fact, even the way that I arrived at this blog site was not by my own choice per se, but more towards the fact that I have a requirement as a second year doctoral student to participate in blogging sessions over a multiple week period, and then to compose a reaction pare related to my blogging experiences.

    In participating in this activity, my eyes certainly have been opened to the benefits, opportunities, resources and potential networking connections that can come about as a result of blogging. Social networking on the other hand has yet to capture my heart and mind. Social networks such as facebook and twitter undeniably have their useful functions and purposes. However, I have yet to embrace what I view as the larger utilization of such social networks as facebook. That is the unfiltered and unashamed exposure of almost an individual’s entire personal life and relationships. I simply see far too much of gossiping, hurting, rumor mongering, and self-promotion occurring on behalf of a great deal of facebook users. In view of this I will gladly keep my label of being “cyberasocial” as long as it means keeping my pride, privacy, and sanity intact!

    Virgil Adkins

    Reply
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  18. Very Concerned

    I am leaving myself anonymous because of the harshness of what I need to say.

    You dismiss a great deal of empirical research with very fast and mostly a priori reasoning. Some of what you dismiss is by very distinguished researchers, and your reasoning is both abrupt and not, in itself, backed by empirical research of equal depth that you yourself have done. I am particularly troubled by your dismissal of Turkle’s decade-long project.

    Your positions on this subject are exactly what someone working *for* Facebook would have to say.

    I have heard you interviewed with Turkle and others and you sound very dismissive, and unwilling (as you are here) to make a crucial conceptual leap:

    That leap is to stop talking about “us” and “users” as if there is one group of people who are uniformly affected by social media.

    People are not uniform. Effects are not uniform. Your arguments keep showing that for *many people*–possibly even *most people*–social media does not produce depression or isolation.

    But Turkle’s and the other research you quote makes a different point that nothing you say touches: for *some people*–perhaps even a large group of some people–perhaps *some people* who are already prone to depression and other forms of isolation–social media can make things worse. Turkle provides many examples of individuals who seem to me to fit this profile and for whom aspects of Facebook, at the very least, exacerbate already serious emotional problems. I keep seeing additional examples of research that support this. I hear from psychologists, teachers, and others who work with young people that they see this.

    Why would it be so terrible to admit this? You seem absolutely committed to resisting this, in a way that does not seem objective, and that verges on saying “those of you who can’t deal with it, get over it.” I think there is ample evidence that for *some people* social media has some serious negative effects, and your arguments keep saying that “for most of us, it doesn’t,” which doesn’t address the thesis as stated.

    Reply
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  21. C.j

    Yep, Facebook doesn’t cause loneliness. I love seeing how other people are having a fantastic time and how many friends they have, while I am stuck at home, with no plans and no one to talk to…

    Nope, Facebook doesn’t make me feel excluded, when I comment on someone’s status and they “hide” me, or they start making crude jokes about me in front of their friends.

    I’ve had Facebook for over 4 years now, and barely heard from anyone at all. Whenever I post anything, it’s usually ignored by people. What I know is that if you’re already lonely, Facebook will make it much, much worse. Whoever wrote this article probably 500 superficial “friends” and hears from them everyday… Whereas someone like me, who is socially isolated, never receives phone calls, emails, messages, nothing.

    Reply

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