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article imageDoes social media cause a more isolated society?

By Yukio Strachan     Apr 16, 2012 in Technology
Experts say that we are lonelier than ever before, but are social networks like Facebook and Twitter to blame? Or is this sense of feeling alone something that has always existed?
As MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle sees it, our social networks “don't only change what we do, they change who we are.”
According to Forbes, Turkle spent a decade looking at how people relate to “emotional” robots, and our preoccupation all things virtual, over face to face communication – we “friend” people on Facebook, keeping people at an emotional distance; we text and tweet in 140 characters or less, instead of picking up the telephone and engaging with the soul of another and letting others engage and really know us.
In her video “Connected, but alone?” based on her new book “Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other” Turkle suggests that the connections forged in this way "offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship." In other words, she says, "We're getting used to a new way of being alone together."
People getting used to a new way of being alone together.
People getting used to a new way of being alone together.
screengrab/Sherry Turkle video
For examples she cites: "People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during classes, during presentations, actually during all meetings. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents' full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention."
Turkle notes of her own daughter (pictured below): "This is a recent shot of my daughter and her friends being together while not being together."
Social media not the cause, but the symptom
While I agree that with social technology we can exist among a group of "friends" on Facebook yet feel lonely because we are not known by them, I don't agree that tweets and the such in social networking causes this isolation.
What I do believe is that the isolation was always there and new technology only brought it to light.
People getting used to a new way of being alone together.
People getting used to a new way of being alone together.
screengrab/Sherry Turkle video
As a commenter on YouTube put it: "Do you remember the 80s or the 90s? Were you not alone in the crowd back then? I'm more inclined to think that this is just a human thing, to think that no one understands you and to feel alone among the people. That's how every teenager feels even in his own family. There is no need to blame technology for the human imperfections."
The TV was my armor
For example, in 1985, long before tweets and adding friends and social media dialect (lol) Robin Norwood, a former marriage, family, and child therapist wrote about being connected but alone in her bestseller Women Who Love Too Much.
In it, she interviewed a man named Eric whose relationship with television was similar to how many relate to their Blackberry. He told Norwood that when he met Sue, his wife to be, "sports were my whole life. That's the thing about sports. If you want to, you can pay total attention to them and not have any time left over for anything else."
“But I was also lonely,” he said. "Sue was very appealing. Right from the beginning she paid a lot of attention to me when I wanted it, and yet didn't interfere with what I wanted or needed to do."
His attachment to watching sports had a back story. "I'd grown up in a family where sports was the only topic you could discuss with my father, the only way you could get his attention. It was pretty much all I knew about being a man."
As you could imagine, after they married, things changed. Sue, who also had a young son, Tim, longed for the attention Eric only gave to sports.
"She complained that I never paid attention to her or Tim, that I was always gone and that when I was home all I cared about was watching sports on TV," he said.
Just when they were on the verge of divorce, his father died, and changed his life.
"Here I was, at my father's funeral, never having been able to talk to him and on the brink of my second divorce because I didn't know how to relate to my wife, either."
“All of a sudden I saw what my father had done all his life and what I was doing, too. Just like him, I wouldn't let anybody be close to me, know me, talk to me. The TV was my armor. I followed my brother outside and we took a drive together down to the lake. We sat there for a long time.
As I listened to him talk about how long he'd been waiting for Dad to notice him, I started really seeing myself for the first time, realizing how much I'd become like my father. I thought about my stepson, Tim, always waiting like a sad little puppy for some of my time and attention, and how I had kept myself too busy for him or his mom.”
Not wanting to die and "leave people feeling the way my father had" he went home to his wife and step son grieved for the pain that he felt as a young boy thirsting to connect with a man who, didn't connect with him. Feeling this pain from his past and seeing himself in the eyes of Tim, they worked together so that the next generation wouldn't carry his unresolved pain.
We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy
Turkle, makes the point later in her talk that, "We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy."
Just like the television was an expression of Eric's isolation and inability to relate emotionally, so too is the overuse or over reliance on social media in 21st century. The concept [Connected, but alone] isn't new, just the technology.
But it doesn't have to be this way. With a society seeking and yearning for connection, we have an opportunity to take a risk emotionally and share ourselves with another soul willing to do the same, healing one another.
Do you agree with Turkle? That our online communications cause our isolation or is there more to the picture. What has been your experience? Let us know in the comments below!
More about alone together, sherry turkle, Facebook, Social Networking
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