As you scroll and scroll through social media the messages are the same: boastful success or a plea for help.

Both make me feel lonely. One set of messages can bring on a feeling of inadequacy, even if I know the stories are embellished. The other set of messages makes me introverted – too many loud voices are shouting and I don’t have the energy to compete.

Perhaps at another stage in life this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. But right now, when I’m battling with so many next steps and uncertainties, they accelerate my sense of isolation. And because so much of society has been intwined with social media I don’t know what to do.

That’s the context to my story anyway. And I’m sure many others feel, or sometimes feel, the same way.

This article is about doing something about it.

Author Disclosure

I wrote a blog introduction very similar to this four years ago. The article went nowhere – I was still figuring a way into this thing they call a career. Four years later I’m in a different space, sharing a personal experience.

Accept: Social Media Makes Everyone Lonely

The name is counterintuitive. Walk past any restaurant in just about any world city and you’ll see groups of friends, sat around a table, enjoying the company of their smartphones. There’s no conversation. Not with the real world anyway. The food comes out and it’s Instagrammed, along with a nice group photo showing smiling faces and an atmosphere of fun. But behind this veneer social media hasn’t made society more social: the ease of accessing a digital world has disconnected us from the real world that’s around us.

We used to have conversations. Real conversations that had awkward silences and made you strain to think of something to say. Which made you learn something about somebody and slowly become friends with former strangers. Now we have followers. And people we once met writing enthusiastic happy birthday on our feeds (I changed my Facebook birthday to something random – even some of my best friends were congratulating me on the wrong day).

The Evidence

If you’ve been feeling lonely and don’t know why then check out the very real recent research. In 2018 Dutch researchers found that “individuals who spent more time on social media every day felt lonelier” than those who had engaged less. Through research, a professor at San Francisco State University showed that certain neurological connections, caused by smartphone use, are similar to those seen in individuals with an opioid addiction. According to the research collated in Psychology Today, people who use their smartphones and social media more, are more likely to report feeling anxious, depressed, isolated and lonely. The Japan Times recently ran an editorial: “Dying of loneliness, despite all our social media ‘friends’”.

There are many more studies with similar conclusions. The compulsive check for updates is brought on by FOMO (Centre for Humane Technology). Becoming glued to your device is a mechanism to avoid being aware of current events in your own life, enhancing isolation. At the same time, seeing updates of events you are not involved with brings a feeling of exclusion. Another study: content individuals see themselves as less successful, less happy and less adventurous, after exposure to idolised images on social media.

Usage

I think everyone goes through a similar dilemma – I’m on my phone too much, I’m on social media too much. Like any addiction there’s a point of realisation, yet not always a point of change.

Scientific research is clear – increased use of smartphones and social media brings on heightened loneliness and isolation. But how much is too much? That’s very hard for me to say.

Four years ago I realized I had to make a change. My approach was to only use my phone or social media when I wasn’t doing anything else. So not scrolling when watching television as well. Certainly not when walking or eating. It’s an approach I copied from a show about losing weight. The show argued that you can eat anything and lose weight, as long as you only eat when you are at the dinner table, doing nothing else.

This worked with my phone. When I was on social media my mind categorised the time as social media time. It helped get rid of impulsive grabs and checks, reducing my usage to two or three times a day when I would sit down and actually enjoy checking social media and the conversation. I don’t pretend to be any expect. This is just a personal experience and everyone should experiment with what works in order to reduce their phone usage.

Acceptance

But while it’s easy to like and follow it’s not easy to ignore. How many likes do you have? Who cares about what you do? The truth is that you can never have enough. Too much social media will make anyone lonely. Searching for recognition through social media posts has a disingenuous undercurrent, because the actual message you want to share is lost in a world of fluff and facade.

As much as social media has connected people it has paradoxically made us further apart. Accepting this premise is an important first step in fighting loneliness in a social media world.

Connect: Make Social Media a Conversation

It’s not just social media. The whole world is louder. Everybody is shouting to be heard. So you are not alone there. The shouting becomes boastful or beseeching on social media. Look at how great I am. Help me, now. Neither have ever sat comfortably with my personality.

But over the last few years I’ve found a different value to social media. Rather than documenting myself, a social media world is a chance to ask questions. And four years ago I had a lot of questions, some of them too big to even articulate.

A conversation is at least two-way. Much of social media is a monologue. But remember that it is also a brilliant way to connect with new people; people from all over the world, of different ages, professions, backgrounds.

The easiest way to make social media a conversation is to ask questions. While I was battling with my own personal questions, I was only able to navigate a path by utilizing the answers of others. I needed alternative viewpoints, from my peers and those who I aspired to be. Social media provides a gateway to connect with these people.

Peer to peer networking brings so much value, both personally and professionally. Speaking with employers and professionals is a chance to learn – don’t see it as a chance to get rejected. Discovering that there are companies that support your diverse interests and needs – well, that makes you feel valued, certainly far more than a few online likes.

Realism: Be You

Most people bend the truth a little. Over the years the stories are embellished, so they are funnier or more dramatic. This is amplified on social media. Another study: participants who admitted to seeking validation from over-the-top stories and a too-perfect profile, are more likely to suffer from low self esteem and a lack of trust in others.

At the same time, creating an altered reality means other people disconnect from you see, sensing something they see as fraudulent or arrogant. I suffered from a similar challenge to this. Without wanting to boast or cry for help, I focused on minimizing my flaws and concerns. I stayed quiet. I didn’t want my photo shown online. I didn’t want to ask questions for fear of being seen as stupid and inconsequential.

I wasn’t myself and studies have now proven that this reaction on social media leads to an inability to relate to others in actual life experiences. So social media was ruining me, in both digital and real worlds.

So as hard it may seem and as cliché as it may sound, a way to fight loneliness in a social media world is to stay true to who you are. There are many other people in the same position as you, with the same fears and unanswered questions.

Studies show that over half of us feel lonely and isolated thanks to social media. Combine this isolation with the daunting challenges of being a) young and b) early in your career. It’s tough. And the most realistic way through it all is to be yourself, because you can’t build a network based on fraud.

Mindset: From Social Media to Social Networking

Media is about broadcasting messages. A Facebook feed is a personal media channel; a newspaper is the opinion of those who own and edit it. The big sea change you can make in fighting loneliness is to reconfigure social media to social networking.

While all the evidence shows that social media is making us lonelier, services like Facebook started with a different premise, one that still gives great value today: networking.

Four years ago that meant I moved less from Facebook and more onto LinkedIn. I had to start my own network and the Internet provided a platform for me to do so. Scroll forward and I’m a successful freelancer with a wide network of professional contacts, many of whom now come to me with their questions.

It’s even easier to get started today. Moving from social media to social networking can take place through Fledglink.

Build a network and learn from each other.

Ask your questions and don’t be afraid to acknowledge you still need to learn. We all need to learn more.

Connect with colleagues, friends, peers and mentors. You’ll find it’s far less lonely when you do so.