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Opinion: Yes, social media sometimes makes us feel alone – but it also shows we’re not

In our haste to condemn all things Facebook and Twitter, let’s not forget they also present huge opportunities for realising we are not alone in our struggles.

Fiona Kennedy

THERE’S A VIDEO doing the rounds at the moment – ‘Look up’. It’s an excellent commentary on a subject that has received a lot of attention lately – the relative sociability of social media, and how it is in fact leading us to lead increasingly isolated, solitary lives.

The basic tenet of of the film is that while we are busy engaging with our various devices and social media platforms, we are in fact missing the actual experience of life that is going on around us; that we’re spending time virtually together but, in reality, alone. It argues that we are presenting an image of a perfect, friend filled, happy life, while we are actually are spending more and more time isolated, disconnected, staring at a screen.

Is this true? To an extent, yes. Social media allows us to present whatever version of ourselves we want to the world. Naturally, we want to look fun, interesting and happy. Photos are screened, status updates are carefully thought out, our relationships look perfect. Of course I realise I’m making sweeping generalisations here, but in my opinion this is where it can cause problems that potentially lead to unhappiness. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the platform itself that’s causing the problem, it’s how the viewer is perceiving the already skewed image, and what interpretation they’re making of it. Does that make sense?

Feeling alone and rejected

For someone who doesn’t have the highest self esteem, they could very easily look at photos posted by friends and find themselves coming up wanting, in so many ways. Or maybe they posted what they thought was a very clever status update, but no one responded – could this lead to feeling rejected? Facebook allows the imagination of the viewer to run riot, creating whatever reality they want based on the images they see. I would be reasonably confident that the actual reality of the lives behind those images could be very different indeed.

Details of a study released back in August last year argued that ‘the more time people spent on Facebook over a two-week period, the worse they subsequently felt. In contrast, talking to friends on the phone or meeting them in person led to greater levels of happiness.’ I’m not really sure Facebook is to blame here. Direct social interaction is always going to be more fulfilling than a virtual interaction – at the end of the day, we’re social creatures and we need company. But again, is it the time on Facebook that’s the issue, or the way the information it presents is interpreted?

Social media can be a godsend

There is a flip side to this as well, one I’m very familiar with and have written about. What about when people are feeling so bad, and so alone, that they physically can’t bring themselves to connect with others in person? In my own case, and I would imagine in the case of plenty of others, the internet in general and social media in particular were a godsend when I was at my lowest.

Rather than looking at images or posts and feeling inadequate, I was able to escape my head for a while and see that the world was still turning, people were still out there. I was able to interact in whatever limited way I was capable of at the time, and it helped me to feel connected until I reached the point of being able to physically reach out. Since I’ve started blogging and using Facebook and Twitter alongside it, I’ve found a whole online community of like-minded people, something I had always been really sceptical about. I’ve also come across groups and resources that I had never heard of, and that have proven to be an invaluable source of both support and information.

Take this month as an example, and the ongoing Green Ribbon campaign. I’m well linked in with the various organisations that are working away behind the scenes to get the message out there, so I knew it was on the agenda for a long time. But what if I didn’t? What if I was sitting at home, alone, depressed, unable to bring myself to speak to people, and to an extent relying on the interweb for my view of the world? Then something incredible could happen.

Conversation and sharing

The campaign has a massive online presence, and it would be hard for anyone who uses any form of social media to miss it – from twibbons appearing on people’s profiles, to shared stories in the media, and ongoing promotion via Facebook and Twitter. What if, for even one person, that glimpse of the green ribbon, and the conversation that it is currently sparking, became a lifeline? What if, for that one person, it gave them the encouragement needed to reach out, ask for help, and admit to struggling?

We can blame Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever other social media people are using to connect for the decline of social interaction , but I don’t think it’s the reason for the sadness and isolation. Yes, it can contribute, but I think there already needs to be a predisposition there. In our haste to condemn all things Facebook and Twitter, let’s not forget that they also present huge opportunities for conversation, for sharing, for realising that we are not alone in our struggles. It all comes down to perception.

Read more about May’s Green Ribbon campaign>

Fiona Kennedy is a 30(ish) year old, happily married, mam of two, living in a small town in Connemara. She has two crazy dogs, wonderful friends and a loving, supportive family. Oh, and clinical depression. She blogs at Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @SunnyScatteredFiona is an Ambassador for See Change – a national movement to change minds about mental health, one conversation at a time’. 

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