Monday Musings…. Loneliness – One of the Laments of Living in a Locked Down World

As I look out my home office window, the driveways of my neighbours are full of vehicles. This includes the guy down the street, who’s taken to parking his F150 on his front lawn to make room for the extra cars taking up space beside his house. A few children are shooting hoops, but mostly it’s quiet. Eerily quiet. Everyone is hunkered down inside their homes. The obligatory 6 feet “social distancing” rule that’s now entered our lexicon, has turned into 60 feet, or no contact at all.

On the plus side, there’s running water, electricity, and grocery stores and pharmacies that remain open and will even deliver. There are so many conveniences that you can still enjoy, even if you must resort to watching Netflix since your regular network shows have been cancelled. And my guess is that many people, because they rarely leave their living space, are spending a lot more time on their devices, seeking for the latest COVID-19 updates, for distraction, for comfort.

But there is one thing that your iPhone or computer or television, pot of tea, or plate of pasta can’t satisfy, and that’s the need for human face-to-face connection. Even FaceTime, or the newly popular Zoom, can’t truly duplicate the family get together or boardroom meeting. You know that to be true as you’re missing your friends, family, classmates, and co-workers. And so, I’m going to suggest that one of the overlooked side effects of imposed social distancing and, by default increased screen time, is loneliness.

Not that loneliness is a new thing, especially in this digital age. In fact, since the rise of social media platforms, most people have become so connected to their devices, that they can live much of their life, in self-imposed isolation. So quarantining is not a stretch for some. After all, you can text or tweet or Tinder without ever having to actually meet someone face to face. The benefits of these (and other) platforms, you’re told, are that social media improves your communication skills, encourages social connections, and strengthens your existing relationships.

But the Washington DC National Center for Health Research has also found, that in recent years, mental health problems have increased exponentially among the iGeneration, those born and raised with the internet. In fact, a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that there is a growing phenomenon known as “Facebook depression” where a young person, due to increased screen time, particularly on social media, is more prone to develop symptoms of depression.

We should also take note of an interesting study reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., Lin, L. Y., Rosen, D., … Miller, E. (2017). Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53(1), 1–8. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010). Lead researcher Brian Primack and his colleagues, took a cross-section of 1,782 American adults between the ages of 19 and 32 and examined their use of 11 social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, and Reddit), and then compared this with their perception of feeling socially isolated aka lonely. The data was gathered in 2014. Fast forward to 2020 and our current pandemic.

Before I tell you what they found, I want you to think about yourself and how much time you spend on those 11 sites, or sites like them. And how much that has increased since this pandemic has forced many of you to stay home.

Primack found that those with the greatest time spent on social media platforms had “twice the odds” of feeling socially isolated. In fact, those who visited any of the social media platforms at least 58 times a week, were three times as likely to feel alone! Check your history, 58 is not a big number. In laymen’s terms, if you’re on your phone or laptop a lot scrolling and searching, trying to feel connected, it actually backfires, big time.

I think it’s fair to say then, that with this pandemic, and the required self-isolation everyone must adhere to, there’s going to be a significant increase in screen time and a lot of that will be spent on various social media platforms. The internet companies know this and are waving fees for extended use. I believe they are doing that in good faith to ‘help’ lessen the financial burden on people, but it may, in fact, increase the emotional one.

We can have our prescriptions filled, food in our cupboards, cheap gasoline in our tanks, and toilet paper in our bathrooms, but none of that can relieve the lament of loneliness and the lack of real human contact.

I noticed that this week as I took my chances and ventured into my community to pick up some essential items. I went to a checkout, got ready to pay my bill, and then the cashier started to talk, and talk, and talk. I wasn’t even saying anything. I didn’t even know him. But I chose to stand there as he bemoaned how life had changed so quickly. His need to communicate, to a person directly, or rather 6 feet in front of him, was obvious.

I heard from others who didn’t realize how much they took for granted, and now were missing sitting in a classroom with their friends who had previously been strangers to them a mere 6 months ago. Or from others who longed to fellowship with like-minded people, to grow together in knowledge and in faith.

There’s a certain comfort in being together, in person. Now, we are forced to live a virtual reality, that tries to give us sustenance, but we are found wanting more. Loneliness, for many, never felt stronger.

Have you seen the commercial with the older people using VR goggles strapped to their heads and how this technology has brought them newfound happiness? The first time I saw the ad it bothered me, and now, more than ever, I'm sure of why that is. Those elderly people don't need a machine to make them feel bliss that supposedly you can find by swimming in the ocean with dolphins. They need their children and grandchildren, neighbours, and friends to visit them - in person. Technology is a poor substitute for the real thing, but, unfortunately right now, that's the predicament we're in.

All of this reminds me of the classic Harlow Monkey experiments that proved two very relevant truths: that the desire for physical contact is a more powerful motivator than even food; and that when faced with novel and precarious circumstances, contact provides the comfort and security one needs to endure difficult times.

The situation we find ourselves in now almost seems like one giant social experiment, as we are living in our own monkey cages forced into social and physical distancing. Loneliness might indeed become your lament, the longer isolation is imposed and the more the internet infuses your mind.

So when you are feeling confined and alone, know that there is One who wants to draw you near; One who can give you the Bread of life, and who can provide the comfort and security you need in these troubled times. There is no social distancing with God! Psalm 145

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon