Loneliness Is Making Our Political Situation Worse
"I went on Twitter so I could have 150 angry people surrounding me—I needed my people."
Petri Artturi Asikainen/Getty Images
At a recent event on social connection at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the facilitator put these words on a slide: "Using social media makes me…"
On one side of the slide was "more lonely"; on the other was "less lonely." He instructed the hundred or so people in the room to physically move to one end of the room or the other, according to the side they most agreed with.
Two thirds of the room believed that using social media makes them less lonely. Most research says they're wrong: The longer people spend on social media, the lonelier they feel. But according to MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle, a preeminent researcher of social media and loneliness, "the story is complicated."
Case in point: A few weeks ago, Turkle left a dinner party, returned to her hotel room, turned on the news, started brushing her teeth, and discovered that Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch had sided with conservative justice Clarence Thomas to fully reinstate the travel ban to six Muslim-majority countries. "I immediately went on Twitter so I could have 150 angry people surrounding me," Turkle says. "I needed my people."
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When I told her about the group at Aspen Ideas that thought social media made them less lonely, she agreed that, in a certain context, it can. "I have my own research to tell you that it often makes people more lonely, but I'm here to testify that … when I came home and absentmindedly turned on the television and got on Twitter, I felt less lonely."
Normally Turkle isn't a big social media person. Her two most recent, bestselling books are Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other . But since the election, Turkle, a dedicated Democrat, says, "I have felt so in need of constantly being with my people that I have taken to Twitter—an insane amount of time." In such cases, at least anecdotally, social media can assuage our loneliness. We feel less alone when surrounded by a virtual tribe.
Ultimately, however, Turkle worries that modern technology is stunting our relationships and making us lonelier. Indeed, loneliness is more common in 21st century America than in any other generation in history. Since Robert Putnam's famous 2000 book Bowling Alone, community and civic society have almost certainly further deteriorated. Americans' "core discussion network"—the people you talk to most often—has dropped a third in size since 1985, and is less likely to include non-family members.
Meanwhile, Pew Research Center found that people tend to use social networking services in lieu of neighborhood involvement; in fact, users of social networking services are 30 percent less likely to even know their neighbors. Loneliness is also most pervasive in societies where social media usage is highest and among 18- to 34-year-olds, who use social media the most. Maybe these correlations are coincidences. But it's nevertheless clear that, as Stephen Marche wrote in a 2012 Atlantic article, "In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society."
Instead, we socialize and politicize on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the works. These social networks may temporarily make us feel less lonely, but in the long run they drive us apart. While IRL communities atrophy and social media booms, America's politics get angrier and more estranged. A 2014 political survey by Pew Research Center— the largest in its history— found that "Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history." (Check out this gif.) The percentage of Americans who "express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions" has doubled—from 10 percent to 21 percent— since 1994. Since Twitter launched and Facebook opened to the public in 2006, Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly divided on issues like environmental laws, government regulation, welfare and immigration. At the same time, individuals are more likely to agree than ever that the "wrong" party poses a "grave threat" to the nation.
As we diverge online, we begin to see others who don't hold our views as aliens, rather than humans. These days, "we're craving each other more," as Turkle puts it, while simultaneously hating each other more. There's a myth that "technology got us into trouble, now it can get us out," Turkle observes. We think we can build online groups or apps or something to pull us back together. But in fact, nothing can replace real-world relationships and face-to-face confrontation of our nation's most pressing issues. "We need civic engagement. Civic engagement is absolutely crucial, there's no way around it," Turkle says.
The problem is, in the digital era people don't know how to civically engage. We want to be sent somewhere; we want a physical connection, not just a click of affirmation. Turkle explains:
"If I said to you, 'I'm desperate to civically engage, it's my time, it's my moment,' when I go home, what is the first thing I'm going to do? I'm going to get on the computer and give money to the Democratic party, but then what's my second move?"
When Turkle was growing up, she had a Democratic party headquarters at the end of her block. Civic engagement—political or non-political—is no longer so easy. Or maybe it is, but to lonely digital natives it feels harder.
Still, that's what we need to undo our loneliness and the political polarization that comes with it. People connect and resolve conflict "by looking at each other in the eye and doing what we're doing," Turkle says. Then she waves at herself and at me—a simple, heartfelt motion you can't tweet.
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