The worst kept secret of our generation is the sheer amount of pressure we place on technology. Beyond the generic word processing functionality and the ease with which we access information, we expect it to be the bulwark against our fear of loneliness. With the eternal glow of our laptop screens we hope to always be surrounded, and therefore much happier people then we would be otherwise.
But more often than not, this doesn't work out quite the way we planned. According to popular opinion, Gen Y's addiction to Facebook, Twitter and 4G actually plagues us with overwhelming loneliness, fating us to become the most forsaken generation of college students that has ever traipsed through the quad. Thank you, Mr. Zuckerberg.
This rationale, as exagerrated as it may be, doesn't always seem so far-fetched: Our reaction speed to text message alerts is almost Pavlovian. We can barely make it through lecture without writing a few Facebook posts. So perhaps it stands to reason that our reliance on social technology so confines us to a cell phone or laptop screen that we can no longer communicate if not behind the security blanket of a keyboard.
“Back in the mid-90s there was none of this shit,” says Drew Magary, a columnist for Deadspin and correspondent for GQ. Last year, Magary penned “The Loneliness of the American Transfer Student,” a Deadspin article detailing his four years at two schools practically without any friends. “I remember getting a Eudora account right at the end of my senior year [of college], and it looked like a DOS interface,” he says, referring to Microsoft’s primitive operating system. But he’s not sure if the existence of social networks hurts or helps today’s college student.
It is obvious that technology, specifically social media, is an integral, unmoveable new norm of the college experience. If we view digital communication platforms as logical extensions of our social lives into the ether of the Internet, it makes sense for our real-life tendencies in social situations to be heightened online. If you feel lonely on campus or at a party, you will likely experience the same feelings, if not more strongly, on Facebook.
“There are certain norms for behavior online, for what you can say and what you can’t say,” Professor Gary Allen Fine says, explaining how we don’t talk about feeling lonely in casual conversation. Fine, the director of graduate studies in Northwestern’s Sociology Department, says we often suffer from “pluralistic ignorance,” meaning we tend to think our nega- tive feelings are unique, even if others are feeling the same way. “If people on Facebook don’t talk about how lonely they are and you’re on Facebook and you’re lonely, then you think that no one else is lonely.”
So is the problem that we're so self-absorbed that we think we’re lonelier? Or is it that we’re interpreting our lives as lonely because we are bombarded with images of connectedness at every turn?
“This is where technology can exacerbate negative social interactions, now that everything is public,” says Adam Waytz, Kellogg professor and social psychologist, who posits that “there are a lot more opportunities for judgment and surveillance. What that leads to is people not revealing their true selves as much.”
Though it’s obvious the photo-and-friend focus of Facebook pushes the average college student to ditch the library, grab a Solo cup and upload pictures with his or her phone, the pressure to party is not new to the college psyche.
Magary says he blames “any college ‘80s movie, basically” for his high expectations of the college social scene. “I always put pressure on myself to have a good time and live up to whatever wet dream I had about college, and that’s always a recipe for disaster.” Social media and movies aside, we should consider other circumstances. We get to college after what is arguably the most self-centered time of our lives: senior year of high school. Though today it employs hoards of others, including multiple college counselors and test prep tutors per student, the college application process is, in and of itself, a self-absorbing process. Why do you deserve a spot at our school? What merits have you achieved? And while there are cheating scandals abound, theorhetically, no one’s taking that SAT Subject Test in math for you.
“It’s a period of major instability,” Waytz says about the transition from high school to college. “I think freshman year could be potentially one of the loneliest times in people’s lives because it’s the first time leaving home and leaving a very secure base.”
And just to compound the problem, psychologists and sociologists posit that we’ve already been conditioned to be self-centered, not only as a result of our means of communication, but also due to our socialization.
“When we make a transition, you don’t have those cues to let us know how common things are,” Fine says. “If you’re a freshman, 18 years old, you don’t have the cues to let you know others feel the same.”
However, Fine asserts that while most students feel lonely at some point in their college careers, it may not be such a negative experience. “You have to distinguish between loneliness as a trait or as something you feel regularly or strongly that interferes with your life and might be tied to depression,” he says.
And while that distinction seems an important one to make, maybe we should focus on the idea that being alone is something completely separate from being lonely. Facebook might show you that you are not alone, but it won’t cure the loneliness you feel.
Unfortunately, there’s no app for that.