The internet is to blame for the huge rise in three global epidemics: Loneliness, Separatism, and Political Polarization

There is a completely new phenomenon afflicting the world, in the new information age. Survey after survey confirms it, yet no one is really talking about it. There is a serious rise in “loneliness” in all societies that exhibit high internet use. This is a fundamental ‘social shift’.

And this modern loneliness, in turn, is creating a serious identity crisis in societies across the globe. To deal with this identity crisis, people are trying to reassert their identities online. These assertions in turn have led to individuals trying to associate with others online.

Online association, leads to the creation of internet ‘echo chambers’ – where likeminded individuals establish communities but stop interfacing with other communities, sites and individuals that have different backgrounds, interests and social standing to their own. The net effect of these online ‘associations’ is to accentuate the voices of extremism and separatism to establish unique, and differentiated online communities.

One paper on the topic says it so eloquently: “In effect people hear their own opinions, biases and prejudices endlessly reinforced. People restrict themselves to their own points of view—liberals watching and reading mostly or only liberals; moderates, moderates; conservatives, conservatives; Neo-Nazis, Neo-Nazis”. This increases polarization and limits the “unplanned, unanticipated encounters” more common when people debated in open platforms. In the modern era, people are not only self-selecting into echo chambers, but are actively being steered into them whether we like it or not. In trying to show us content we will click on, Google’s personalized search results and Facebook’s personalized news feeds screen out content we are most likely to disagree with, and create a comfortable bubble of like-minded information.”

People are simply not ‘traveling’ to new intellectual domains. They are staying in their provincial minded spaces … like a village hick who has never been to New York or overseas. All they see and hear are people like themselves in their chosen digital villages. They are not tuned to anything else. The internet is creating ‘modern day hicks’ at an unusual pace.

Contrary to common assertions about the democratic effects of the Internet, the actual impact of the internet is to create micro-villages that people don’t stray out of. People sit alone in their homes and associate with others like themselves and develop extreme views on everything!

And this is now a social epidemic. Don’t believe me or agree with me; well here are the facts. (You can’t argue with facts).

Loneliness

We’re getting lonelier. Perhaps its counter-intuitive, that the internet causes loneliness, given that it is a medium for communication. But think about it, people are using the internet instead of socializing face-to-face. If you want to find a mate … the internet (match, tinder, etc.)! If you want to see a movie … the internet (Netflix etc.)! If you want to order groceries … the internet (amazon etc.)! You have no reason to leave your home.

Survey after survey finds supports this. For example, the General Social Survey found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. “Zero” is the most common number of confidants, reported by almost a quarter of those surveyed. Likewise, the average number of people Americans feel they can talk to about ‘important matters’ has fallen from three to two. And interestingly, demographically, loneliness appears most prevalent among those with highest digital proficiency: millennials.

An expert on the subject, Dr. Nicholas Christakis told the New York Times that one lonely person can “destabilize an entire social network” like a single thread unraveling a sweater. If you’re lonely, you transmit loneliness, and then you cut the tie, or the other person cuts the tie. But now that person has been affected, and they proceed to behave the same way. There is this cascade of loneliness that causes a disintegration of the social network.

Millennial loneliness is amplified by the Internet, and it becomes digitally viral. It’s not a coincidence that data suggesting a rise in loneliness began to surge two years after Apple launched its first commercial personal computer and five years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

Ironically, we use the Internet to alleviate our loneliness. Social connection no longer requires a car, phone call or plan – just a click. And it seems to work: World of Warcraft players experience less social anxiety and less loneliness when online than in the real world. The Internet temporarily enhances the social satisfaction and behavior of lonely people, who are more likely to go online when they feel isolated, depressed or anxious.

The Internet provides, as David Brooks wrote in a New York Times column last fall, “a day of happy touch points.”

But the Internet eventually isolates us and stunts our remaining relationships. Since Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book Bowling Alone, the breakdown of community and civic society has almost certainly gotten worse. Today, we’re going to a bowling alley alone… we’re “bowling” – and a host of other pseudo-social acts – online.

One reason the Internet makes us lonely is we attempt to substitute real relationships with online relationships. Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying. Online social contacts are “not an effective alternative for offline social interactions,” sums one study.

In fact, the very presence of technology can hinder genuine offline connection. Simply having a phone nearby caused pairs of strangers to rate their conversation as less meaningful, their conversation partners as less empathetic and their new relationship as less close than strangers with a notebook nearby instead.

Excessive Internet use also increases feelings of loneliness because it disconnects us from the real world. Research shows that lonely people use the Internet to “feel totally absorbed online” – a state that inevitably subtracts time and energy that could otherwise be spent on social activities and building more fulfilling offline friendships.

Further exacerbating our isolation is society’s tendency to ostracize lonely peers. One famous 1965 study found that when monkeys were confined to a solitary isolation chamber called the “pit of despair” and reintroduced to their colony months later, they were shunned and excluded. Humans are the same, humans socially drive away the lonely, so that “feeling socially isolated can lead to one becoming objectively isolated.” The more isolated we feel, the more we retreat online, forging a virtual escape from loneliness. As a planet, we’re stuck with a mounting pile of infectious isolation.

Extremism

This infectious isolation, is now manifesting itself in a rise in extremism and in turn a more polarized political atmosphere … and a yearning for people to just go off and form new communities, new countries … i.e. separate. We’re in a pseudo-civil war, and we don’t know it or recognize it. Read comments under news articles … its open war. Trump is this and that, Hillary is (or was) this or that … and Obama was this or that… I mean it’s open, downright rude, intellectual warfare! Its nasty. These are intellectual bullets being shot at each other, and the internet lets people get away with it!

The internet is the enabler. The internet has made us all more self-involved and self-referential. Identity politics, defined broadly, has transformed American politics across the board. With rising individualization, Americans of all political stripes increasingly place their personal identities and experiences at the center of their existence. To be an evangelical or an environmentalist, a libertarian or a progressive, is to put a set of ideas about oneself at the center of one’s existence.

The Internet is helping to raise the rancor level in American political discourse. In a new study, political science researchers say that access to broadband Internet has increased people’s hostility to those in the opposing party.

If the Internet is an echo chamber, allowing both the liberal netroots and the Tea Party to alternately ignore one another and turn their ideological doppelgangers into monsters, it is also arguably better understood as a mirror, reflecting and magnifying the growing narcissism of American life… caused by the epidemic in loneliness.

We have become or are becoming narcissists via the internet. It’s all about us, or me, I should say. Let me open an account, type in MY preferences, MY interests … it’s all me … me … me! And what people can end up with are endless opportunities to hear only voices that are like themselves. Researchers exclaim: “If you only hear your own side, you become more polarized.”

Political division in America is deeper now than ever before is a recurring theme in this discussion. Research based largely on an analysis of voting patterns, argue that Americans are increasingly segregating themselves politically, becoming more and more likely to live around others who share their political views…. both geographically and digitally! And this research translates globally too.

For me this explains Brexit and separatism in Spain too. People get caught up in waves … generated by people around them in physical and digital space. There is minimal critical thinking or even real public discourse. No one is listening to opposing views.

I am lost for ideas on what can be done. How do we get people to listen other views? How do we get people to drift outside their comfort zones? To me, it’s a similar situation with dealing with people in small towns, how do we get them to go to big cities even for short periods? Or to travel overseas? How can we create real public discourse and get different people to interact with one another?

Contrary to popular opinion, the internet has become a divisive vehicle, and causing social breakdown and destruction of democracy, nations … even families. It’s not good.

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