It’s Thursday night. What will you do when you get off work? You’ll probably feel drained. You might swing by the gym, heat up some leftovers, and feed the dog. But if you’re anything like me, you really live for that part of the night when you get to kick up your feet and check in with your friends on Facebook. Yet for all the connectivity that Facebook and other social media provide, new research shows that clicking through pictures of your friends’ babies, dogs, and trips to Key West makes you feel lonely—and that loneliness harms your health.
A University of Michigan study found that using Facebook isn’t always a positive experience. The information went viral last week with a short video, The Innovation of Loneliness. As the video claims, “We’re collecting friends like stamps, not distinguishing quantity versus quality, and converting the deep meaning and intimacy of friendship with exchanging photos and chat conversations.” Another study reports that 60 million Americans feel unhappy with their lives because of loneliness, and that more Americans live alone than ever before.
Before you deactivate your Facebook account, remember that Facebook didn’t cause the problem. Loneliness is a psychological state. It does not correlate with the number of people a person knows—in real life or on Facebook. A person can feel satisfied alone. A person in a crowded room can feel lonely. (I can relate. Last winter, I attended a holiday cocktail party at which I jokingly got called the “dishwasher;” I scrubbed cheese plates all night to distract from the fact that I didn’t know anyone). Loneliness stems from a fear of social failure.
But loneliness reaches beyond the realm of the mind and mood: it causes the same risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Researchers at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine found that loneliness significantly increases the risk of heart disease among women, even after controlling for age, race, marital status, and depression. Lonely people are less likely to exercise, more likely to become obese, less likely to survive a serious operation, and more likely to sleep.
Moira Burke of the Human-Computer Institute at Carnegie Mellon has discovered something that will help: thoughtful interaction. “People on Facebook who received personalized messages became less lonely, while people who received one-click communication experienced no change in loneliness.” According to Burke, loneliness occurs on Facebook because of passive consumption. You passively consume when you scan your friends’ status updates and broadcast your opinion about the winner of American Idol. Instead of passive consumption, take the time to specify why you like the picture of your toothless young nephew covered in spaghetti sauce and noodles. Who knows? You might save a life.