One More Text, No Less Loneliness

This is Part Two of a three-part series.  

“One of the more vivid events in my life was the time that my daughter, at two years old, was diagnosed with central diabetes insipidus (a rare disorder),” Leanne told me, looking down at the floor at one of my leadership conferences.  

When You’re Down, Social Media Doesn’t Pick You Up 

A twenty-eight-year-old woman from a rural Mexican-American family, she hadn’t experienced an easy life. Her parents crossed the border into California illegally in the trunk of a car a few decades ago. 

Leanne’s mother, through domestic work, and her father, by starting from the ground up on a farm, struggled to keep food on the table for her and her three brothers. Her father is now managing forty people as the foreman of an industrial parts company in Riverside, California. His hard-won success became her motivation to make something of her life, which brought her to my conference. 

“Individuals with diabetes insipidus experience extreme thirst and urination,” Leanne continued. “Before being diagnosed and treated, my daughter was drinking a sixteen-ounce water bottle within the time span of an hour, significantly affecting her life.” 

Being a parent myself of a two-year-old at the time, I could only fathom the depth of suffering her daughter’s rare disease had caused Leanne. I asked her how she had been able to handle it. 

Embarrassed but wanting to share what she had been through, Leanne replied: “When my daughter was diagnosed with diabetes insipidus, my three hundred sixty followers on Instagram and seven hundred and one Facebook friends never became an outlet to feel better. Not once did I feel the need to post how I was feeling or reach out to any of my ‘social media friends.’” 

Only the Good Times Roll on Social Media 

Leanne’s experience with social media is unfortunately relatively common: she was reluctant to share social information that would generate a downward social comparison in which others’ impressions of her life would be lowered.  

After exclusively sharing her positive life moments for years, when she went through one of the most difficult experiences of her life she had to go through it alone. The alternative would be to risk the loss of the upward social comparison she had invested years of her life cultivating. 

“I admit that in our digitally mediated society where everyone decides to highlight the best parts of their lives,” Leanne said finally, “that I felt afraid to post and acknowledge my feelings of loneliness.” 

You Mean You Weren’t So Happy Either? 

A sophomore at Cornell University learned a similar lesson.  

In her freshman year, Emery Bergmann shared that she “had to minimize my time on social media. It became a platform for comparison. I evaluated every picture my friends posted, determining whether their college looked like more fun than mine, if they had made more friends than I had, just meaningless justifications for my unhappiness.” 

Bergmann created a video describing her experience that went viral and led to her first New York Times article. She was surprised when the same high school friends she assumed were so happy in college because of their polished social media posts contacted her to let her know how much they related to what she was experiencing.  

Social media, Bergmann discovered, “reinforces the notion that you should always be enjoying yourself, that it’s strange to not be happy and that life is a constant stream of good experiences and photo-worthy moments. I taught myself that everyone’s college experience is different, and slowly, I started to embrace the uniqueness of my own.” 

The Insidious Face(book) of Envy 

Experiences like Leanne’s and Emery’s are consistent with a recent study of 584 Facebook users led by Hanna Krasnova of Humboldt University in Berlin that found—in an eerie ode to Hennigan’s earlier finding of an increase in petty crimes attributable to the other most rapidly adopted technology in history, the television—that the Number One emotion reported by Facebook users is envy. 

Moreover, Krasnova and her team found that the envy people experience on Facebook decreases their life satisfaction, especially when they primarily engage in “passive following,” or using Facebook to view the lives of people they know rather than as a medium for active socializing.  

Recent studies that have found we are more motivated by envy than admiration help explain why we waste so many of our precious hours in passive following on Facebook: we’re not admiring others (a positive emotion), but envying them (a negative one)—leading to our decline in life satisfaction.