Over the summer, Toyota began airing a television ad campaign that created a nationwide dialogue. The commercials use humor to take aim at aspects of modern American lifestyles, particularly those of younger people. One ad uses Facebook to make a point. It shows a woman who looks to be in her late twenties using a laptop computer in her home. She is alone. Peering over her computer screen and into the camera as if talking to the audience, she expresses concern for her parents. She has pressured them into creating Facebook accounts after reading an article that claimed “older people are becoming more and more antisocial.” The woman laments that her parents only have 19 Facebook “friends,” in comparison with her number of 687. “This is living,” she says confidently, as no one is there to listen. The scene then cuts to her parents, who smile as they drive a car with bicycles attached to its roof. They meet up with friends, at which point the “antisocial older people” ride into the sunny horizon on an off-road bicycle adventure. This advertisement says a lot in 30 seconds.
Today, communication via Facebook appeals to over 600 million registered users worldwide. Texting is so popular that laws have been enacted in 34 states to stop people from doing so while driving. People use their limit of 140 characters to share everything from their innermost feelings to what they had for lunch on Twitter. Receiving a text or a social media response to such communications often makes us feel connected. But those exchanges frequently involve people who are, at least for the moment, alone. No human touch is involved. No sounds of laughter or speech are audible. We may go on with our day feeling as if we’ve reached out, but is that really the case? Are there certain characteristics of true social interaction? What is the meaning of being “engaged”?
As with many of life’s questions, answers are relative. If one is confined to their home due to an illness or disability, email or social media applications might be lifelines to a world they are physically unable to reach. But in the case of someone who is socially uncomfortable and would benefit from practicing face-to-face interaction, using online communication as a crutch may be debilitating rather than beneficial. Stanford University is just one source of studies in the past decade that link the number of hours spent on the Internet with social isolation. Their findings indicate that isolation increased in correlation with hours of Internet usage. Naturally, the results were controversial, especially among technology enthusiasts.
As a freelance writer and editor, I worked out of my home. My days were filled with phone, computer and brief face-to-face interactions with clients and interview subjects. Yet I spent most working hours alone, writing and editing in a quiet room. I went to graduate school for two years, attending classes and participating in school activities, which widened my social circle. Upon graduation, I went back to my freelancing routine. It was only then that I realized the impact of my physical isolation. I felt unfulfilled and socially disconnected. One solution for me was to volunteer with an organization that advocates for a cause in which I believe. The added time spent outside the home and consistent personal interaction is a minor change that makes a considerable positive impact on my outlook.
Long before I started volunteering, I realized that sometimes just walking out the front door did wonders to combat feelings of isolation. Potting plants or weeding the garden often led to conversations with my neighbors that I would not have experienced otherwise. A neighbor might inform me about another who was sick. That interaction would lead to me reaching out to that person and helping them when I could, which benefited both of us. Simply taking a walk led to other connections with my community. I was frequently amazed by local efforts and associations in which I became involved just by walking around my neighborhood and making a point to speak with people I encountered.
Whether it is intentional or not, people isolate themselves in various ways. Reading a book or watching television alone are activities that can mimic social interaction. As early as 1956, social scientists coined the term “parasocial interaction” to represent the phenomenon of people feeling as if they have intimate relationships with their favorite characters on television or radio.
With the unemployment rate currently at 9.1 percent, millions of people are finding themselves home alone, without the constant communication that employment generally includes. In these circumstances, it is important to remain engaged with the outside world, and not just through the use of electronics.
There are many ways to become more socially active. Websites such as meetup.com list thousands of groups based on interests from knitting to sports. People with similar interests organize and meet in person on a regular basis. Joining a gym or the YMCA can be beneficial to your health as well as your social life. Committing to a regular exercise routine, even in a setting such as a park, can bring you in contact with others who have similar goals. Adopting a pet gives you a companion and can break you out of your normal routine. Walking your pet can introduce you to new areas and people. There are dog parks all over the bi-state area that are wonderful places to interact with other owners. Taking classes helps you grow intellectually as well as bringing you in contact with potential friends. Churches and synagogues have organized activities and are accepting and inclusive of newcomers.
Loneliness is a common aspect of the human condition, but it doesn’t have to become permanent. It’s surprising how easy it is to expand the walls of your world. Begin with small steps. Keep an open mind and remain determined and positive. If you have setbacks due to fear of stepping out of your comfort zone or perceived apathy from others, don’t let that stop you. Turn off the computer and the phone and leave your home. Make it a habit to talk to new people you meet, and really listen to what they have to say. Socializing and making friends is not only about sharing your own feelings, but taking an interest in others. Added personal interaction can have a major positive impact on your life.
This article was contributed by Lisa Marcus, a volunteer at Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri.