Why can people still feel lonely in the 21st century?

In a world where it is easier to speak to other people than ever before, why can people still feel lonely in the 21st century? In a world where we have the internet, social media, mobile phones, apps for just about anything, and the ability to video chat along with so many other things, people can still feel lonely because loneliness is more than just about being able to contact other people. There are so many other feelings going on within a person, that loneliness is also about how a person feels which has no bearing on how socially connected they are, or have the potential to be.

That feeling of loneliness

In the last fifteen years, social media has grown into the juggernaut that it is today; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, to name just a few, allow us to connect to other people instantly. These people could be those we know personally, and many others that we don’t know at all, apart from what their social media profile photo may look like. If we want to, we can document every moment of our lives online, or tell people what we think about anything and everything. Even if we don’t want to connect with people via social media, we can connect with them in so many other ways. Older style connections such as talking to people over the phone, or even sending a text message can instantly connect us with other people; friends, family, or even work colleagues. Yet, loneliness is a feeling people may have, no matter how many people are around them.
Loneliness can be defined as the sadness that is felt when someone has no friends or company. In a 2016-2017 study, it was found that in England, 5% of adults reported feeling lonely either often or always, and women reported feeling lonely more often than men did. This equates to over 2 million adults. I find this statistic quite shocking as from an outside look on today’s society, we are more connected than ever. But then I look again and ask, are we?
Some older generations talk about community spirit and, depending on where you live, how everyone used to know everything about everyone else. In days gone by where people had to see each other to talk, this provided contact that is not as frequent in today’s society. Whether people today would be comfortable with these processes or not, that may be part of the reason why so many people report feeling lonely.

The social media problem

I am old enough to remember social media not being around (or even the internet not being the massive influence it is now), but I am also young enough to have been influenced by the new methods of interacting with people, whether that be by using MSN Messenger while doing homework after school or needing a university email address to create a Facebook account. I like that. I like that I can remember having a talk to friends and make up games using our imaginations rather than staring at a computer screen all day, or constantly looking at our phones. Social media has a lot of positives, and I personally like that I can instantly see people’s reactions to things like a new television show, or even what is going on in the news at that moment. But social media does have its downsides. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has seen posts other people have made on social media and thought that their lives seem so much more exciting than mine. But I then remember that social media is a filter – people show what they want other people to see, which is probably not what the reality is, or even close to it.
I think feelings of loneliness can be fuelled by social media because of how it can potentially make someone feel. After all, loneliness is a feeling, not an action; people can be physically alone but not feel lonely. Turning off social media and pretending it doesn’t exist may work if it is a big part of the loneliness a person feels, but there are other things that can be done to combat it.

How can we tackle loneliness?

There is a lot of advice available on how people can help themselves if they are feeling lonely. This advice includes:

  • Connect with other people – by doing so you may realise that there people who care about what you say and what you are doing.
  • Do something you enjoy – going out into the real world can potentially help alleviate the feelings of loneliness people have.
  • Exercise – it can help lift a person’s mood and give them more energy.
  • Volunteer – volunteering with an organisation, or helping in another way, can help people meet a variety of individuals, including fellow volunteers, and can bring a boost to a person’s self-esteem.
Just because we now live in a world where we can be connected to people at every second of the day, if we want to be, doesn’t mean that the problem of loneliness has been eradicated. The 21st century, I’m sure, will carry on inventing and producing new ways of staying in touch with other people, but I don’t think that will help the situation if no matter how many ways of connecting with people are brought out, they do not combat how a person actually feels about such connections. I think every person is different in how they think and feel about people being in their lives; some people like being on their own a lot, while others find that extremely difficult. However, I believe that it is the quality of the personal relationships, friendships, and interactions we have that make up how people feel, and that is why people can still feel lonely in the 21st century.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach