Socially lonely in the digital age

The Vancouver Foundation recently released the results of a detailed survey on social relationships in the City of Vancouver. The result showed that a significant number of people of all ages reported difficulty in establishing social networks on arrival. Even people who had been residents for four or five years suggested that they could not identify themselves as part of a specific “circle of friends”. Many reasons were given for this seeming inability to meet new people including geography, weather and the inability or reluctance of people to socialize outside their own racial group.

I’d like to offer another plausible reason and that is the significant influence of cellphones and social media on our lives. It is, quite frankly, easier to meet and “friend” someone on Facebook than it is to physically go and talk to your neighbour or someone else walking in the same park. When you have a “relationship” with someone as a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter user, you control the relationship on your terms. This avoids the socially accepted necessity of getting off the couch, shaving and getting dressed. Why go through all of that on a Friday night when you can stay home, surrounded by “friends” on your cellphone. Surely, the things going on in Shanghai, Beijing or Goonwallabang Australia must be more interesting than going out and physically socializing with the people in your own town?

At a recent doctor’s appointment, I noticed that out the 20 plus people in the waiting room, 18 were engrossed in staring at their handheld device. Even the small children were plucking away at a keyboard, and as a result, the room was eerily quiet. I must admit, staring at your phone was certainly preferable to thumbing through 10 -year old copies of “Yachting Monthly” or reading about Oprah’s cousins plum pudding recipe, there is still something to be said about engaging in conversation with someone you may not have met before. Granted, that conversation may only be about the weather (at least you don’t have to shovel rain, eh!) or housing prices (getting like Vancouver innit!) but it is still an opportunity to open up and possibly learn something new.

Cellphones and social media make it possible to ignore the world outside our window and create one for ourselves and on our own terms. People post things without thinking, “facts” without research and memes that may or may not be based in fact. The term “slacktivist” was coined for people who become engaged or outraged over an issue but confine their commitment or involvement to reposting a meme or resharing a news article. Their guilt and outrage assuaged by this act, they can tell themselves that they have somehow affected change in the world.

When I moved to another community for work some years ago, the first thing I did was to look to get involved in the local hockey community. Through meeting new people, I became part of a curling league, even though I hadn’t curled before, became a Kinsman and made a difference in that community and ended up serving on my first board. I became part of a community rather than living in a town of strangers. Many communities are suffering for lack of volunteers and this is one way to get to meet new people.

While social media certainly has its benefits and it has the power to expand our knowledge of other people, there are few substitutes for loneliness better than putting your phone down, getting off the couch, and starting a conversation with someone you don’t know or renewing a relationship with someone you do.

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