High-quality friendships are in decline.
In 1985, most Americans told pollsters that they had about three confidants, people with whom they could share everything. Today, most people have about two. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no one to fully confide in, but by the start of this century 25 percent of Americans said that.
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All of this has left people wondering if technology is making us lonelier. Instead of going over to the neighbor’s house, are we sitting at home depressingly surfing everybody else’s perfect lives on Facebook?
The best research suggested that no, technology and social media are mere tools. It’s what you bring to Facebook that matters. Socially engaged people use it to further engage; lonely people use it to mask loneliness.
As Stephen Marche put it in The Atlantic in 2012, “Using social media doesn’t create new social networks; it just transfers established networks from one platform to another.”
But recently, people’s views of social media have grown darker. That’s because we seem to be hitting some sort of saturation level. Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.
Earlier this year, Jacob Weisberg had a fine essay in The New York Review of Books reporting that, according to a British study, we check our phones on average 221 times a day — about every 4.3 minutes. A decade ago almost no one had a smartphone.
Now the average American spends 5 1/2 hours a day with digital media, and the young spend far more time. A study of female students at Baylor University found that they spent 10 hours a day on their phones.
A lot of this traffic is driven by the fear of missing out. Somebody may be posting something on Snapchat that you’d like to know about, so you’d better constantly be checking. The traffic is also driven by what the industry executives call “captology.” The apps generate small habitual behaviors, like swiping right or liking a post, that generate ephemeral dopamine bursts. Any second that you’re feeling bored, lonely or anxious, you feel this deep hunger to open an app and get that burst.
Last month, Andrew Sullivan published a moving and much-discussed essay in New York magazine titled “I Used to Be a Human Being” about what it’s like to have your soul hollowed by the web.
“By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality,” Sullivan wrote, “we are diminishing the scope of intimate interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook ‘friend,’ an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s ‘contacts,’ efficient shadows of ourselves.”
At saturation level, social media reduces the amount of time people spend in uninterrupted solitude, the time when people can excavate and process their internal states. It encourages social multitasking: You’re with the people you’re with, but you’re also monitoring the 6 billion other people who might be communicating something more interesting from far away.
Perhaps phone addiction is making it harder to be the sort of person who is good at deep friendship. In lives that are already crowded and stressful, it’s easier to let banter crowd out emotional presence. There are a thousand ways online to divert with a joke or a happy face emoticon. Happy touch points without any of the scary revelations, or the boring, awkward or uncontrollable moments that constitute actual intimacy.
When Montaigne was describing the accumulating intimacy he enjoyed with his best friend, he described an emotional interaction that was full and progressive: “It was not one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand; it was some mysterious quintessence of all this mixture which possessed itself of my will and led it to plunge and lose itself in his; which possessed his whole will and led it, with a similar hunger, and a like impulse, to plunge and lose itself in mine.”
When we’re addicted to online life, every moment is fun and diverting, but the whole thing is profoundly unsatisfying. I guess a modern version of heroism is regaining control of social impulses, saying no to a thousand shallow contacts for the sake of a few daring plunges.
Follow Mr. Brooks on Twitter @nytdavidbrooks.