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Is social media making you lonely?

Social media, which was designed to make the world a more connected place, might just be leaving us more isolated and even depressed

Social Media, Social Networking Sites

Shakya Mitra 

Is social media making you lonely?

After nine years of being a heavy Facebook user, Kishore Dhiman suddenly deactivated his account. The 32-year-old Delhi resident says that the long hours spent on the social networking site were beginning to take a toll on his mental health. The absence of human touch on Facebook was slowly gnawing at his state of mind. Though he had many "friends" on the medium and got plenty of "likes" and comments on his posts and pictures, he did not feel any real connection with these people. He was miserable.

At 15, Samrat Kohli would spend nearly his entire day on social networking sites, to the extent that he had started retreating from real-life friendships. He had also become unusually violent. The psychologist who counselled him says the boy was exhibiting symptoms of social media related depression.

Though social media platforms, like Facebook, have made the world more connected, they have also led to some worrying trends. Loneliness and depression are among those.

A 2012 report published in The Atlantic, titled "Is Facebook making us lonely?", reads, "The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society." The article goes on to say that what we have now is the "lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine".

The constant need to show oneself as being happy and fulfilled all the time, to attempt and pretend to be happy all the time is eventually exhausting, according to The Atlantic report.

Shyam Goyal, 23, would know. He is one of the victims of this "smooth social machine". Seeing the wonderful lives his friends portrayed of themselves on Facebook, Goyal went into an overdrive making luxury purchases that betrayed his financial status. As feelings of envy, insecurity and low self-esteem set in, he also turned to addictions like alcohol and drugs.

Suneel Vatsyayan, psychotherapist and director of Delhi-based Nada India Foundation, says Goyal realised that his depression was stemming from the virtual world he had started living in. Goyal has currently left Facebook. Vatsyayan says though he is on a sabbatical, or a detox, from social media, he expects him to return to it soon, hopefully after he "recovers".

Goyal was lucky to have recognised the source of his problem. There are many who do not.

Anil Sethi, a retired army general in his 60s, was an alcoholic. After a paralytic attack, he gave up drinking and instead found a substitute in Facebook. He would spend four to five hours a day on it. He became detached from his family. His social life shrunk. Worried, his family brought him to Vatsyayan for counselling, who found that his dependency on social media was no less than his dependency on alcohol. The heavy social media usage, which Sethi had thought would be a solution to his loneliness, had only aggravated it further.

Through counselling, Sethi has cut his Facebook time down to less than an hour a day. Vatsyayan, who initially observed him as a reclusive person hiding his insecurities behind his social media profile, after treatment found him to be a far more enhanced individual who has managed to find a balance between the real and the virtual world.

Sethi's example shows that even older, mature people are ending up lonely and depressed because of their social media habits.

Social media offers an easy solution to forge relationships, but at the same time could be a dangerous phenomenon, as Kohli's parents found. Vatsyayan says had there been timely intervention and better parenting, the child would not have landed in this situation. While getting him back to normalcy was far from easy, Kohli is today in a better mental space than he was when he was brought in for counselling. Regulating his social media usage has played a critical role in his well-being.

Samir Parikh, director, mental health and behavioural science at Fortis Healthcare, New Delhi, maintains that there is no link between depression and social media usage, given that the former is a medical condition caused by chemical imbalance. However, the time and the quality of time a person spends on social networking sites can affect his mental state, he adds.

Social networking sites have blurred the lines between flesh-and-blood and virtual friends. "Social media interaction is a superficial experience. It cannot replace the enrichment that one may get from the personal touch of a real interaction," says Jyoti Kapoor Madan, consultant psychiatrist at Paras Hospital, Gurgaon.

And, while seeking help through social media might work, it cannot be at the cost of ignoring the vulnerabilities caused by loneliness or depression, adds Sameer Malhotra, director, mental health and behavioural science, at Max Hospital in New Delhi.

Dhiman, meanwhile, has returned to Facebook. He hopes he is able to maintain the balance.

(Some names have been changed on request)

  • Not wanting to spend time with people out of the virtual space
  • Projecting an unreal image on social media
  • Becoming excessively violent
  • Neglecting one's family and work and turning to social media as a substitute
  • Feeling jealous, under-confident and losing self-esteem
  • Leisure activities getting sidelined
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms while trying to quit social media

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First Published: Sat, April 23 2016. 00:25 IST