This post is another grumpy complaint about a popular media trope that is historically and sociologically misguided, but, more important, that misdirects our attention: hand-wringing by young folks about being friendless and lonely in the 21st century. Complaints of young, privileged writers, echoed by older ones who have been peddling this theme for decades, distract us from the real, albeit old-school, problems of the 21st century: the material struggles of the the less-privileged.
The meme I refer to is a long string of magazine articles and newspaper stories that have gone viral about how isolated and friendless Americans have supposedly become. Sometimes the stories blame new technologies for isolating us (e.g., “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”; “Driving Us to Isolation”; “Is Social Media Isolating...”) and sometimes they just blame the culture of the day.
The social science on this topic, put briefly, finds that:
(a) People’s friendships vary in number and activity over the life course. Generally, both decline as people leave school and early adulthood for careers, marriage, and child-rearing. Nothing much new here; at least nothing for several decades.
(b) The chattering classes have been worrying about friendlessness among the middle class for generations – that is, since the ideal of “friendship,” having emotionally intimate (but non-romantic) bonds with non-relatives, spread among the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century (see here).
(d) The effects of the internet appear to be muted and mixed, more likely enriching social life a bit rather than eroding it.
(i) People say that use of the internet and mobile technology has either not much affected or has improved their social ties (e.g., here and here). Of course, people might be wrong. (By the way, in the critical essays about the internet the writer often implies that only he or she can distinguish between Facebook “friends” and “real” friends. Nope, few people are confused between the two.)
(ii) Research (including, recently for example, this, this, and this) suggests that some shy people use e-technology to hide socially, while extraverts use it to be yet more sociable. No doubt, many of the lonely turn to the internet for solace, just as many of the lonely have long turned to television or bars. Some kinds of people seem to be unusually empowered by the internet, like ill shut-ins and the middle-aged seeking mates. Otherwise, it seems not such a big deal, probably a bit of a positive. (One of the blog posts I cited above referred to a study of loneliness among the AARP generation [pdf], but that study actually concludes: “Those who did not have regular Internet access were more likely to be lonely.” )
To be sure, loneliness is important, psychologically and physically. But loneliness is largely the result of being single, of outliving friends and family, of being ill, and often of being in transitions(like the first years in a new school, new job,or new community.
Lonely Me (and My Friends)
One reason, I suspect, for the wave of hand-wringing is that so many of the young people writing and reading these essays are themselves going through major life course transitions – seeking a life partner or splitting up, parenting for the first time, moving to a new career, and so on. They project their current reactions and those of their friends, who are typically in similar circumstances, to the world. (Probably the only bon mot I can be credited with is my first rule of trend journalism: “A social trend is whatever is happening to a newspaper editor and the editors’ friends.”)
Another reason for this lonely-me meme may be that readers’ anxieties about friendship come along with the high expectations modern Americans have for having friends. No dummies they, advertisers have for generations played on the worry that our clothes, thinning hair, bad breath, and the like are costing us friends.
But for the media to focus so much on this theme is self-indulgence. It reminds me of middle-class complaints in the early twentieth century about the “servant problem”; the real problem was that working-class women were happier and better-paid laboring in factories than under the supervision of well-off housewives. And of middle-class complaints in the mid-twentieth century about “housewife boredom” – the byproduct of affluence, household technologies, and low expectations for women.
If the magazines and the blogosphere are going to get worked up over social problems, let’s get worked up over real, deep, and painful ones — say, health problems among the poor, narrowing avenues for careers available to working-class youth, crime in the suites, the rising wealth-and-politics plutocracy in America — rather than, say, whether a 28-year-old journalist newly arrived in Manhattan is seeing her girlfriends as much as she used to.
End of gripe. (For now.)