The irony of social media: How technology makes us lonely

Illustration by Cicily Du

If there’s one word to describe our generation, it’s ‘connected.’ We’re connected to each other, to events, to pop culture—and it is all a mere touch-screen away. We have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ who like our posts and pictures—but something is missing. Despite the web of relationships social media provides us with, we are lonely.


On Sept. 2, Frank Bruni, a columnist for The New York Times, addressed the epidemic of loneliness plaguing college campuses, and how the use of social media can be seen as a major cause.


“They’re lonely,” Bruni wrote of university students. “In a sea of people, they find themselves adrift. The technology that keeps them connected to parents and high school friends only reminds them of their physical separation from just about everyone they know best.”

Bruni is onto something: Social media, no matter the platform, has provided us with instant connection to friends and family. It’s a tether to the people we love most, keeping us close no matter the physical distance. But is the leash a little too short?

The social media platforms that we have come to embrace and enjoy today are fairly new, having emerged within the past 15 years. Facebook, which originally started as a Harvard-only website, opened to the public in 2006. It currently has over 2.1 billion users, and is arguably the best platform for staying in touch and maintaining relationships, especially with the advent of Facebook Messenger. In comparison, Instagram, a visuals-based platform, emerged six years later and now has over 800 million users.

Out of the various messaging and networking applications, these two top the charts. With over 2.7 billion active accounts combined per month, Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram have established themselves as media monopolies. There are however, other key players: Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, LinkedIn, and more. The common denominator between all of these networking sites seems obvious: They form connections. Social media is social, after all.

A recurring phenomenon is the formation of online communities—no matter where you are in the world, you’ll be able to find your niche on any site. At McGill, Facebook is among the most popular sites, and not just for its networking aspect. Through various events and groups—like Free & For Sale or Samosa Search—Facebook demonstrates social media’s ability to spread awareness, join people together, and boost productivity.

Yet, the profoundness and meaning behind the connections social media encourages is something worth considering. Social media plays a major role in an age of instant-gratification; it delivers what we want, when we want it. Social stimulation has never been easier. Still, a gap remains within the connections we are constantly forming: The way things are displayed online doesn’t quite match the way they play out in the real world. In fact, the digital world often tends to skew reality.

On a psychological level, social networking has farther-reaching consequences than its benefits might imply. A 2016 University of Memphis study on cyberpsychology, and in particular the use of Instagram—deemed the worst platform for mental health—revealed that users who post more photos on Instagram tend to experience higher levels of loneliness. This is in part due to the potential for comparison between oneself and others using the platform. People lean toward posting the highlights of their lives, showing only the successful and happy moments; rarely do they post, let alone acknowledge, their low points. According to the same study, this aspect of social media often fosters intense feelings of envy and low self-esteem.


Social media’s reliance on attractive visual cues has a hand in creating such emotional burdens. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the lack of genuineness behind a Snapchat story or Instagram feed complicates this time-old notion. Just because we can browse through images of someone’s life doesn’t mean we know them on more than a superficial level. The inundation of images displaying those ‘perfect’ moments paints more than a picture—it creates expectations. Though the lines between virtual and real life are increasingly blurred, there’s an obvious difference between the online world and the one we live in—and McGill students are noticing.

Evelyn Dom, U3 Arts, is one of the billions of social media users for a variety of reasons. Primarily involved with Instagram, Snapchat, and occasionally Facebook, Dom has experienced both the pros and cons of extensive social media use.

“I’m very intrigued by the whole social media [trend] and [how it builds] communities and all that, because I definitely do think it has a lot of benefits, while at the same time it does frighten me a little bit,” Dom said.

As such, Dom hasn’t been spared from the nerve-wracking effects that social media can spur. She often finds herself making comparisons to the people she sees on Snapchat stories and Instagram feeds.

I compare myself with what others [are doing] and that can kind of get stuck in my head,” Dom said. “Individually, everyone is doing something else, but if you add that up […] it makes it seem like you’re the only person who is not doing something.”

This is a common sentiment among social media users—sharing on these platforms is superficial to the point where posting, scrolling, sharing, and liking can seem vapid; like a waste of time. And while that might be so, social media does have its benefits. From easing long-distance communication to facilitating socialization at faster speeds than ever before, it’s no wonder that sites like Facebook and Instagram are so popular.

There comes a time, however, when a line must be drawn. Being able to rely on social media platforms to connect with others feels helpful, but all it really does is mask and accentuate a lack of authentic human connection. The pervasiveness of social media usage is becoming a crutch; people turn to their virtual lives to fill the voids that persist day-to-day. In hard times, when we are most vulnerable, social networking’s benefits go right out the window. The platforms our society venerates become an abyss, echoing the loneliness we feel—it is then that social media has the potential to harm more than it helps.

For university students, one of the most vulnerable times is during their first year. For many it’s their first time living away from home and everything is new, from the weather, to the living situation, to the people. In particular, the pressure to make friends and have perpetual fun can make the transition a lot harder. There is a pressure to succeed, to thrive. Social media augments this, and when we see others portraying perfection, we often jump to make comparisons. How are they going out every night and I’m not? How are they always studying with friends, and I’m home alone?

According to psychologist Hilary Duncan, social media can create a sense of ‘missing out.’ In an email to The McGill Tribune, Duncan explains the tricks social media can play on our minds. Instead of the classic fear of missing out (FOMO) that may come to mind, the comparisons we make can lead to the perception of missing out (POMO).

In my clinical work, what I see most often is young adults being very hard on themselves,” Duncan wrote. “They tend to consider [social media] to be, at best, a mindless time-suck and at worst, perpetuating self-comparisons and lowering self-esteem [....] Instead of FOMO, it’s more of a POMO [....] The illusion that everyone else is out and doing lots of exciting, fun things and you’re at home alone in bed, scrolling through their photos.”

While the fear and loneliness that social media can incite is a mere illusion, it’s perhaps the most impactful narrative among university students. As Bruni wrote, students are alone in a “sea” of people. At McGill—a school of over 40,000 students—odds are, more people than we know grapple with such loneliness. 

An underlying factor that must be taken into consideration is the status of a student’s mental health before the introduction to social media. For some, the digital world is simply full of benefits; the cons either do not exist or are negligible. But for those who already struggle with anxiety and depression, the downsides of online networks and sharing platforms can exacerbate previously sensitive situations. Multiple studies have shown that stress, anxiety, and depression levels are on the rise among university-level students. When you add social media to the mix, it can make mental health take a turn for the worst.

Perhaps another reason why perceived isolation increases the way we use social media is that all of the posting, sharing, and retweeting can take away the ability to live in the moment. As cliché as it sounds, being present and mindful has meaningful impacts on mental health, and more specifically on loneliness. The constant presence of our phones—whether we pull them out at the dinner table or at a party—has the potential to take away from the moment, erasing the benefits of social interaction.

Manon Debuire, U3 Management, has observed the effects social media has on being present and aware.

I love pictures [...] but I feel like we have that reminder in the back of our heads [that] we have to record this,” Debuire said. “I think we get so carried away in showing people what we’re up to that often [we] forget to enjoy [the moment]. I don’t think [filming or photographing a moment] is actually as fulfilling as living it.”

The concept of “fulfillment” that Debuire mentions is an important one. Social media is undoubtedly stimulating, but its capacity to fulfill the connection and interaction that humans crave—and need—is up for debate. And this is where the root of the problem lies for university students. We are constantly connected through social media—everyone knows what’s going on in their friends’ and family members’ lives, and that is wonderful. But beyond that arises the question of how meaningful this connection is. Though engaging, social media is no replacement for social life.

It comes down to this: Social media usage has great potential, yes, but it also has the ability to take away from meaningful connections to people and surroundings. And when that happens, loneliness is at the forefront of the many emotions we experience. A ‘like’ on Facebook is not the same as a hug; a ‘retweet’ is not the same as chatting over coffee with friends. Humans are a communicative species. While social media can certainly ease and facilitate communication, it cannot replace the billions of face-to-face interactions we took part in in the past.

This isn’t to say that it’s time to delete your accounts and throw your iPhone out the window, but it’s time to find stability. Nick Ferranti, U4 Arts and Science, is an advocate of a balanced approach. Ferranti is present on a variety of online platforms, like Tumblr, Facebook, and Snapchat. In an email to the Tribune, Ferranti disagreed with Bruni’s take.

I dislike the point of view that our generation's social media obsession is hindering social interaction. It is literally doing the opposite,” Ferranti wrote. “There's a balance between using your phone and living and I don't think I've met or seen a single person who is not capable of striking it.”

Ferranti's insistence upon striking a balance is important—studies show that on average, we spend up to nine hours a day online. While usage is entirely up to the user, it’s worth considering how that time may be spent otherwise. Balancing between the online and ‘real world’ doesn’t have to be difficult. From switching to calls instead of texts to digitally detoxing, it’s possible to enjoy social media without the mental drainage.

Additionally, social media must be taken with a grain of salt. When browsing, liking, and favouriting, it’s important to remember that each post doesn’t show the whole story. Nevertheless, cyber spaces play a subtle yet strong role in our lives. We use them to document, to share, to browse and enjoy. But without a balanced approach, we’re playing a dangerous game—and our mental health is often the first thing to suffer.