status update: LONELY: Social-networking sites can diminish or widen our connections to others, experts say
May 02, 2010 (Albuquerque Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Friendly University of New Mexico senior Jordi Gailard has received Facebook messages, some hundreds of words long, from acquaintances who barely make eye contact in class. She also has friends who spend hours perusing Facebook profiles rather than talking face-to-face.
"With MySpace and Facebook, it's a lot easier for people who are shy or socially awkward to reach out for people," she says.
Following that observation, one might think online social media have made it harder to be lonely. But experts say the reality is more complex: The Web provides a valuable point of connection for people who are truly isolated, while possibly worsening the lives of those who use it most.
Social-networking sites have increased our connections in number but not quality, John Cacioppo, author of "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection," says in a phone interview.
"If you use the Internet as a substitute for face-to-face relationships," he says, "it's a little like starving and eating celery." Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychology professor, says there hasn't been enough time to study the phenomenon's full impact on social isolation, but what is there so far is troubling.
As a society, we tend to think of loneliness as the result of a willful act of avoiding other people, Cacioppo says.
"Our research suggests a different picture," he says. "It's a biological signal, like hunger, thirst or pain." According to Cacioppo's research, loneliness is an intense desire to connect with other people coupled with a heightened sensitivity to social threats that makes such connections difficult.
Someone isolated by outside circumstances may feel drawn to social media; Will Reichard, owner of Crosscut Communications in Albuquerque, says he has some friends who work from home and use Facebook or Twitter as "virtual water coolers." And some experiences, such as being a soldier in Iraq, are isolating because only someone who has lived through them can empathize, says Aspen Baker, executive director of the post-abortion hot line and social site Exhale, in a phone interview from her headquarters in California.
In many of those situations, social networking can be the most successful, stable means of connection, Baker says. She says women who have abortions fear judgment or retribution but don't want to be alone with their story. Hot line callers often ask for support groups, and Exhale refers them to religious groups if that's what they want.
But those aren't right for everyone, and Baker says her research shows that in-person support groups usually don't last long.
"It doesn't mean that support groups can't work, but we came to believe that the need underneath was the connection, and we saw social networking as a way to meet that need," she says.
The site, available to women who call the hot line, began in July 2009 and has grown by three to five members a week. Every member has posted an average of 11 times in the site's forums.
Baker says some members have established friendships based on age or geography, though she doesn't have evidence of the friendships translating offline.
Online like offline There isn't much data about how people use the Internet in relation to their overall social life, but Reichard says the majority of people online aren't truly isolated. He thinks the online world isn't so different from offline.
"One of the things I see very clearly online is that social structures form online the same way they do in real life," he says. "Anyone who feels excluded in real life could conceivably feel the same way online." It's possible to make new friends online, he says, noting the friend he met in person months after connecting on Twitter.
"The first time I met him, it was the strangest experience because I felt like I knew this person already," Reichard says.
UNM senior Gailard says she has upward of 1,300 Facebook friends, many of whom are acquaintances or people she has met once. She says she sometimes talks to people via Facebook to pass a lonely couple of hours, but generally uses the site to supplement a busy social life and keep up with friends she might not see often.
Facebook reports 400 million active members, each of whom has an average of 130 friends, spends 55 minutes a day on the site and receives three "event invitations" to real-life gatherings every month.
Yet even with almost an hour on the site every day, the average Facebook user posts only 25 messages per month.
A study released in the May 2010 issue of the academic journal Computers in Human Behavior shows that people who spend the most time online also tend to report being the loneliest.
And, even as the nation's online connectivity was growing, a 2006 study published in the American Psychological review showed that Americans are shedding close friends, and more than 25 percent have no one to confide in at all.
Cacioppo says people need deep connections to a few people, usually fewer than five, to be truly satisfied. The Web encourages many more connections that, though shallow, take time to cultivate and maintain.
"If you want to see lonely people, look at the person who spends all their time nurturing 4,000 Facebook friends," Cacioppo says.
311 chat Lonely people reach out many ways outside of social networking, including city information hot lines, says Esther Tenenbaum, Albuquerque's 311 division manager.
Many callers will ask a legitimate question, then segue into a conversation with the operator, she says. One woman called 311 operators every night her husband was at work.
"She's pretty much told them her life story over the course of the calls," Tenenbaum says.
Prolonged loneliness can be harmful, says Dr. Jan Fawcett, a psychiatry professor at UNM. Loneliness can slide into depression, he says, and also can be caused by it.
Still, Cacioppo says loneliness is an essential part of the human condition.
"I don't want anybody to live in chronic pain, but I wouldn't wish the absence of pain on anyone," he says.
For thousands of years, loneliness has been useful for the species' survival and provided individuals with incentive to connect with other people. When human relationships work properly, individuals get out more than they put in and the pair is capable of more than the sum of its parts.
"I see it as something quite precious," Cacioppo says. "I think loneliness gives us our humanity." Ways to connect If you're feeling left out, there are plenty of ways to connect, says Dr. Jan Fawcett, psychiatry professor at the University of New Mexico.
First, consider volunteering, he says. You're likely to meet other volunteers and people in the community you wouldn't know otherwise. "For me that's one of the easiest ways to feel good." Reaching out also means embracing your own interests, Fawcett adds. Are you a reader? Go to a book signing. Pet lover? Volunteer at an animal shelter.
It's important to remember you aren't going to feel instant friendship with the first person you meet, he says.
"It's a random walk, so you don't know if you're going to run into somebody you like or not," he says.
Continue to push yourself outward, Fawcett says, even if you don't feel it's amounting to much. If you're starting to make connections and you feel better, that's great.
If, however, you dread each successive outing or you've made some connections but feel as lonely as you did before, seek professional treatment for depression, he says.
"If you don't feel better when something good happens, there's a problem," he says.
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