Do a quick count to see how many connections (or ‘friends’) you have on your social media accounts. For comparison, a typical Facebook user has 338 friends; the median of this being about 200 . A typical Twitter user had an average of about 700 followers in 2016 (note that these are not ‘friends’) . And unless you are a social media influencer or celebrity, you would have an average of about 150 followers on your Instagram account. These numbers appear to be increasing slightly over the years, suggesting that more people around the world with access to the internet connection are linking up through social media websites. Of the many individuals listed as your connections on these social media channels, however, how many of them can you truly consider to be friends? You may have businesses or professional services as part of your social media contacts, so let’s exclude those. Let’s also exclude acquaintances or people that we may have met just once or twice in our lives. We might also exclude friends whom we have not spoken to in ages – those we last saw in elementary school, for instance. By this series of criteria, how many friends do you really have? Anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests that a typical individual can establish meaningful connections with at most, 150 individuals. This number represents the “cognitive limit” of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships with and is sometimes referred to as ‘Dunbar’s number.’ Indeed, recent studies of Twitter conversations also showed that on average, individuals can only maintain stable relationships with anywhere from 100-200 people . Dunbar suggests that this number is limited by how much attention and energy we can devote to these members within our social networks.
The Paradox of Modern Living
The large number of connections we form on social media relative to the number of people we recognize to be friends is a paradox of modern living. Despite being more connected to one another, we feel isolated – there is a sense of disconnectedness and uneasiness in us that not everyone we are linked up to online are really ‘friends.’ Loneliness levels, incidentally, are on the rise. It is important to note that loneliness is not the same as ‘not having friends,’ nor does the image of a solitary-loving introvert with more books than Facebook friends accurately represent loneliness. Loneliness is a distressing feeling experienced when we perceive a difference between the quantity and quality of our social relationships . Put another way, we feel lonely when we view that there is a difference between the number of connections we would like to have with the number that we do have. We feel lonely also when we view that there is a difference between the closeness of connections we have, with the closeness we would like to have. In short, loneliness is perceived social isolation. A recent report in the Scientific American states that 47% of Americans often report feeling lonely , while in 2018, about half of UK residents worry that “no one will notice if something bad happens to them .”
The Health Costs of Social Isolation
Research on loneliness paints a bleak picture about this growing epidemic and as a major health concern. Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her team, for instance, scoured research studies on loneliness from three decades and found that social isolation and feelings of loneliness accounted respectively for a 29% and 26% increase in mortality. Social isolation relates to an objective indication of the lack of quantity and quality of relationships, while loneliness relates to the subjective feelings of this isolation. The results of this review suggest that regardless of whether the isolation is actual or perceived, individuals do suffer a mortality penalty from not having sufficiently or quality social connections. Holt-Lunstad and her team conclude by stating that the health risks of loneliness are greater than the health risks posed by obesity. If left unaddressed, loneliness will reach epidemic levels in the year 2030. Another review of studies, this time led by researchers from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York showed that poor social relationships led to a 29% increase in risk for coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in risk of stroke. Finally, a study of breast cancer survivors showed that feelings of loneliness was associated with greater pain, depression and fatigue. The feelings of isolation also led to these survivors showing immune system dysregulation – explaining why the more isolated among this group were ore prone to pain, depression and fatigue.
Clearly then, social isolation and feelings of disconnectedness have dire consequences for our health. The silver lining, however, is that feelings of loneliness can be managed. Here are some suggestions from research on how to do precisely that.
• Address anxieties and negative perceptions about social threats: Lonely people are likely to be hypervigilant towards social threats. That is, they are on edge about how they are judged, or view by others and thus more likely to perceive a social threat when there is none. As a result, such individuals will act to reduce contact with others for fear of rejection. This unfortunately results in greater feelings of loneliness. Loneliness begets loneliness – people fear rejection and judgment from others, act in a way to minimize this rejection, only to end up feeling even more lonely than before . Addressing such negative cognitions and perceptions can help break this vicious loop. Remembering that loneliness is based on an exaggerated or pessimistic view of the quality of one’s social interactions. Being mindful of this fact can help you view your social interactions more objectively – that seemingly dismissive reaction from a friend may not necessarily be deliberate, nor an intention to dismiss your friendship.
• Complement offline relationships with online connections. In fairness, social media groups can be a great way to connect with interest groups – people who share your passion in handmade sock animals, for instance. Consider however, the how’s and why’s of your social media use. One study of Facebook users suggests that it may even be possible that using Facebook doesn’t lead to loneliness. Rather, the researchers found that already-lonely people are more likely to use Facebook . Online connections and conversations cannot fully replace face-to-face interactions, so it helps to include offline meets in fostering your relationships as well. We’re pretty sure that while the handmade sock animal group consists of members that tend to be more introverted and perhaps a little shy, some will be more than delighted to meet you in person and share some crafting tips.
• Engage in more social leisurely activities. How do you often spend your free time? Studies of leisurely activities suggest that not all leisure time is equal – some appear to promote a greater sense of social connection than others. Sampling elderly Dutch adults, researchers find that engaging in volunteer work, taking part in cultural activities and shopping (yes!) were positively associated with social connectedness. More passive activities – spending time on the computer or watching TV, however, were less likely to lead to a positive benefit for social connections and overall well-being . Take note of your leisure time and how you spend them. Perhaps there is a way to inject additional social interactions to them, effectively countering loneliness.