Loneliness among students #8 It’s society’s fault
Talking to people? How does that work again?
UKrant is focusing on the topic of loneliness among students. How much of a problem is it, what are the causes and what can you do about it?
‘The thing is’, she said, ‘I’m actually pretty lonely.’
She was barely eighteen, a first-year student, and one of a dozen student editors at UKrant. A nice girl. Smart and funny. A little insecure at times, but she’d surprise you with a witty remark now and again.
She’d gone to the introduction weekend organised by her programme, but people who had been friends in high school tended to stick together and she hadn’t been able to get to know anyone there. Her best friend had joined a student association and she hardly ever saw her anymore.
‘Didn’t you meet anyone in class?’ I asked her. I remembered my own time as a student. I would run into people everywhere. They sat next to me in class, I talked to them at the coffee machine, at the UB, at night in the pub, or at the Grote Markt. If we hit it off, we’d exchange phone numbers and have dinner the week after. Everyone needed friends, so everyone was open to meeting people.
The young student looked at me in shock. ‘I can’t just go up to someone I don’t know and start talking to them!’
Oh. Well. I did. I never really thought about it. It just happened.
Join an association
A week later, I found myself in the pub with a few other student editors. Once again, the conversation turned to loneliness, this time among international students. ‘What people don’t understand’, one of the students lectured, ‘is that you need to join an association. That’s how it works in the Netherlands.’
I listened, a little surprised. I’d joined Bernlef for a little bit back when I was a student, but that was only because my best friend had a crush on a member there. We joined together, until their love had run its course. Sure, I could see how it would help you meet people, but I’m not sure it’s the only way.
Students are terrified of calling people on the phone
Of course, this was back when the pubs were still open and when students could still meet up at the coffee bar and didn’t have to stay at least five feet apart. This was even before young people desperately tweeted out hashtags like #lonelyyoungpeople in 2019 or #lookingforabuddy in 2020.
I realised these student editors weren’t the only ones struggling to meet new people. Their experiences also differed from the dozens of student editors that came before them. Assuming that students aren’t any less fun or worthy of friendship than fifteen years ago, when did things change? And why?
Safe in our bubble
In my research, I soon came across the work of American psychologist and AI researcher Sherry Turkle. She started out as a fan of the opportunities that life on the screen offered people who wanted to experiment with their identity and meeting people, but her views have changed after twenty years of research. She now sees a society in which people increasingly turn to technology, becoming insecure in relationships and afraid of intimacy. ‘We look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time’, she writes.
We go on Tinder rather than approach someone in the pub. It’s safe and detached, and so what if you get rejected? The other person is just a bunch of pixels on a screen. We prefer sending emails and text messages over talking on the phone; students nowadays are terrified of calling someone. At the office, we keep having to explain to them that a WhatsApp exchange does not constitute a conversation.
We stay in contact with various people through Facebook and Instagram. Will your followers miss you when you’re gone?
The problem, Turkle argues, is that this form of maintaining contact is too easy. We’re safe in our bubble, getting digital support and admiration that feels real, feels like it’s about you, even if only for a minute. At the same time, it requires no eye contact, and ‘you can elect not to hear how hurt or angry [people] sound in their voice’. But the Instagram posts, Facebook friends and Snapchat streaks all stand in the way of deeper connections, friendships you’ve invested in, relationships that aren’t always easy.
Our attention is constantly being fragmented by the pull of the digital other. Just being in the presence of a phone, regardless of whether it’s being used, can lead people to pay less attention to each other. ‘Absorbed in those they have “friended”, children lose interest in friendship’, writes Turkle.
This goes for everyone; not just students. But today’s students did grow up in a digital world. They are digital natives. They don’t know what it’s like to live without Facebook or WhatsApp. Turkle also thinks this generation has lost something they didn’t even know they needed: the ability to easily make contact with people.
Talking to a stranger is something you need to learn
Talking, making contact, is something you need to practise. ‘Humans need to be surrounded by human touch, faces and voices.’ Researchers at the University of Michigan showed that students have become less empathic and aren’t as good at reading emotions. Both things are reasonably important if you want to have a deeper relationship with other people. Students aren’t as good at these things because they don’t practise.
Starting up a conversation with a stranger is something you need to learn how to do. It’s uncomfortable, but people who always hide behind their phone – at the bus stop, in the cafeteria in the Harmonie building, or the picnic benches at Zernike – have closed themselves off. They’re basically saying that they’re unavailable, busy focusing on someone else. You’re not just sabotaging your relationship with the other person, who isn’t even there, but you’re also teaching yourself how to not make contact with others.
This development in and of itself is kind of scary, but in her book The Lonely Century, Noreena Hertz adds another dimension. She also acknowledges the impact of digitisation but adds the devastating impact of neoliberalism. ‘Under neoliberalism we were reduced to Homo Economicus, rational humans consumed only by our own self-interest’, she writes. Collectivist words, such as ‘belong’, ‘duty’, ‘share’, ‘together’, were replaced by individualistic ones: ‘achieve’, ‘own’, ‘personal’, ‘special’.
This individualistic world is a lonely one. People in the twenty-first century have become each other’s competitors. We don’t want to share anything, we distrust the people around us, and we constantly judge each other: aren’t students costing the state too much money? Is that person on benefits committing fraud? It’s all about efficiency and cost reduction and speed. About more. But, says Hertz: ‘An “all about me” selfish society is a lonely one.’ She argues that together, we’ve devalued the concept of kindness.
In a culture where we’re all in a hurry and need to be self-sufficient, there’s no time to forge meaningful bonds. Ten years ago, our student editors always joined us at the pub after editorial meetings. They drank beer, came up with ideas, and forged friendships that, in some cases, are still going strong today. But now? One of them has to go train, one has a committee meeting, another has a deadline, and the last needs to go to their second job.
This is all fine, of course. It’s understandable. We occasionally host a beer and snacks event for the entire crew, although during the pandemic that’s become a picnic in the park. The problem is that even though the students see and know each other, they’re still just a group of unconnected individuals. In too many cases, they are lonely individuals.
Technological innovation, which includes but is not limited to social media, is creating a distance between us. Self-checkouts means we don’t have to talk to anyone at the register. We no longer buy our concert tickets at the record store. Instead, we spend hours in our room refreshing an internet page. Online education is here to stay. So is working from home. It is, and there’s that word again, very efficient. It saves time.
But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that in this neoliberal society, saving time doesn’t actually mean we’ll have more time for ourselves or each other. It just means we can do more work, produce more in less time. We’re always rushing each other, becoming more socially handicapped in the process.
But we can’t live without other people, without human contact. In last year’s Verkeerd Verbonden. Waarom social media ons eenzaam maken en hoe je dit kunt voorkomen (‘Wrong number: Why social media make us lonely and how to prevent it’), Cees Zweistra shares his philosophical views on the dilemma.
Saving time doesn’t mean we spend more time together
In this modern society, he makes a distinction between being lonely and being lost. Both of these things occur when the balance between ourselves and other people is disturbed, he says. ‘If someone else isn’t present enough, we just go on getting lonelier’, Zweistra writes. ‘If we’re not present, we get lost.’
We need a powerful, self-aware sense of self in order to have healthy relationships with other people. We need other people. We need people to comfort us, but also people that challenge us to question ourselves and the image of ourselves we have in our head. We need ‘a witness’, says Weistra. ‘Without that witness, the certainties we’ve constructed in our mind may just turn out to be a delusion.’
This witness needs to be physically present, because ‘then they’re completely present. […] When someone is there in person, we don’t have to capture them in an image or a memory’.
But trying to find that person through the technology of WhatsApp or Instagram is a risk, as technology makes it easier to walk away from ourselves and others who might criticise us. ‘We turn the other person into our image of them.’ But even in that safe bubble, we’re still alone, lost in the masses. ‘Even if you’re on a forum with thousands of other flat-earthers, […] you’re still alone at your computer.’
Learn how to make contact
In UKrant’s online survey, 90 percent of students indicated they were lonely. Almost 130 students participated in the Friend-o-matic pub quiz we’d organised so students could meet each other, and other initiatives have shown how much students need this. However, it’s important to realise that the pandemic isn’t the only source of the problem, and that it won’t go away once we’re all vaccinated.
It’s the way we’ve shaped our society that’s making us lonely. And that’s scary, because neither Facebook nor Instagram and Twitter are going anywhere. Even if they do, something will take their place to have the same effect on people, if not worse. Online education is also here to stay. It’s cheaper and more efficient. Is it fair to hold the university accountable for the fact that we won’t be able to see each other at the coffee machines as much?
The problem won’t go away once we’re vaccinated
‘Some would say’, says Turkle, ‘that we have already completed a forbidden experiment, using ourselves as subjects, with no controls, and the unhappy findings are that we are connected as we’ve never been connected before, and we seem to have damaged ourselves in the process.’
Turkle, Hertz, and Zweistra argue that we need to learn how to make contact with people again. We need to talk to them, says Turkle. Hertz argues that we should leave the mantle of consumer behind and become citizens again. We should accept the things that are best for the collective, and not just ourselves. We need to stop letting our lives be led by how easy things are, says Zweistra. ‘We need to accept the discomfort of being present for someone else when they need us, just like we want others to be there for us.’
There were two students at the pub. They’d both admitted to missing being around people. I looked from one to the other. ‘Why don’t you have dinner together?’ I suggested. ‘You get along, don’t you?’
They looked at me, eyes wide. ‘Ehm’, they hesitated, shamefaced. And they looked away.
Sources used for this article:
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together. Why we expect more from technology and less from each other (2017, herziene editie)
Noreena Hertz, The Lonely Century Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart (2020).
Cees Zweistra, Verkeerd verbonden. Waarom sociale media ons eenzaam maken en hoe je dit kunt voorkomen. (2020)