Anna Sheridan on loneliness in an age of online friends, Glasgow Herald, 24 November 2011

From ‘Herald Woman’, published by the Glasgow Herald on 24 November 2011

WE’RE SURROUNDED BY NETWORKS OF FRIENDS, YET WE’VE NEVER BEEN LONELIER, writes Marisa Duffy.

A typical teenager spends up to four hours a day engaged on social networks, and the average site user boasts 400 so-called friends. These days, there are so many ways to keep in touch that admitting to loneliness is a social taboo. Yet, according to new research commissioned by the CSB (Community Service Volunteers), nearly a third of Scots (28%) have felt lovely at some point over the past 10 years. That includes more than a fifth of people living in Edinburgh (22%) and nearly a third of people living in Glasgowe (31%).

Long-term illnesses are a common cause of isolation but so, too, are family break-ups and bereavement, as well as the fact that more of us than ever live alone. The recession is also forcing people to work longer hours to protect their jobs and relocate for work, which can contribute to making individuals feel cut off. Once regarded as the preserve of the elderly, loneliness is becoming increasingly common in young people. Social network sites are full of images of people who appear to be leading happy, busy, fulfilled lives, which leaves many to feel that they are missing out. Friday Night Sucks, an online service which launched in London earlier this year, is aimed at hooking up people in their 20s and 30s who want to go to gigs and pubs but struggle to find someone to go with. It has been doing a roaring trade.

Dr Arthur Cassidy, a social and media psychologist and member of the British Psychological Sociert, says loneliness affects people of all classes and age groups, something he can testify to from the tramge of clients who come to see him. “I even find it in university students who seem to be the life and soul of the party,” he says. “I have them crying in my room. They are just lonely.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the boom is social network sites is increasing loneliness, according to Cassidy. “We know that there have been a de-humanisation of interpersonal skills over the past decade with the massive growth in social networks. It has become an established norm to created ‘friends’.”

The problem is that when those “friendships” go wrong, the effects of things like bullying, ostracisation or snubbing are amplified in a very public form.

Online chatter teends to be superficial and eventually leaves people feeling unsatisfied. “It’s all very innocuous. It just becomes very alienating, so you are producing your own alienation and loneliness by way of the site that you are engaging with – which is essentially a bunch of bits and pieces on a machine.”

Young people, says Cassidy, are losing the nuanced cognitive skills required to nurture real friendships by choosing to do the majority of their socialising online. The personalised, supportive bonds that we form in real life, which help us know who we are, cannot be matched by the generalised soundbites we exchange online.. “We find that the loneliness is produced by the fact that these people [online] do not give us sufficient positive feedback.”

Anna Sheridan knows how it feels to be lonely. There was a time when life consisted of simply going to work and coming home to an empty house. She yearned for people to hang out with on a Friday night but relocating to a new city, followed by the onset of ME in her mid-20s, had left her isolated and feeling depressed. “It’s hard anyway moving to  a new place and starting a new job and the problem was that I just couldn’t go out and do anything. I was barely coping with getting up, getting to work, getting through the day and getting home and I was incredibly lonely for the first six months or so.”

It was while working on her physics PhD at Durham University that Sheridan first experienced mild symptoms of ME, but it was only after she had accepted a job as a research fellow and moved to Southampton that they became severe. She went from living in a house in Durham with three flatmates and a busy social life to living alone in a city of strangers. “Everyone was starting new lives in the same way I suppose,” said Sheridan, 36. “I had some friends who were fabulous and kept in contact.”

Her condition became so severe that even having a conversation left her exhausted and going to the pub with colleagues was impossible. “When I came home, I’d literally sit down on the floor of the flat and fall asleep and wake up half an hour later. Weekends were just trying to get to the supermarket, get back, collapse and rest in the hope that I would be OK on Monday.

“The first few months you expect to be lonely andy not to know people. But after four, five or six months I started to think that I really ought to have settled by now. That’s when I started having problems sleeping and feeling quite unhappy, though I don’t think I was clinically depressed.”

Apart from the unhappiness which loneliness brings, more evidence is emerging as to the detrimental effect on health. Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives age more slowly, enjoy better sleep and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that alleviating loneliness is as good for your healthy as giving up smoking, according to John Cacioppo of the University of Chaicago, Illinois, who has dedicated his career to studying the effects of social isolation.

While there is evidence that lonely people don’t look after there physical health and wellbeing, there are also adverse psychological effects, according to Cacioppo, which have a similar effect on the body to stress. He believes the reason is evolutionary – we have evolved to be in a heightened state of anxiety when alone to protect ourselves from attack.

Crucially, however, the negative effects of loneliness depend on how lonely people believes themselves to be, rather than on there actual size of their social network. Appearances can be deceptive and someone with a small number of acquaintances may be perfectly content. “We have to be cautious when looking at loneliness because not everyone is an extrovert and extroverts can also suffer from loneliness,” says Cassidy.

He believes, however, that the trend for virtual interaction is going full circle as thousands desert online networks. People have realised, he argues, that they miss the whole experience of going out, of engaging with people in the flesh and the accompanying sensory stimulation. “Young people are very zealous now in wanting to engage in social interaction. What we have to do is encourage people to develop their human interaction skills.”

For those who want to forge friendships in the real world but are cut off because of illness or location, the internet can be a positive tool. Today, Sheridan lives in Glasgow with her husband of three years Phil, whom she first met at Durham University and met up with again on moving to Scotland six years ago.

Her experience of isolation motivated her to set up a forum which operates both online and face to face for people living in Glasgow who have ME. It now has 150 members. “It’s nice for other people to get advice but also just to have a laugh. It’s not all sitting their talking about ME. It’s not people moaning, they are often laughing at themselves, laughing at general things but with people who understand.”


Anna Sheridan helps run the Glasgow ME/CFS Meetup Group at www.meetup.com/Glasgow-ME/


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