The Irony of Social Media

The average Facebook user has close to 350 “friends.” The average person has less than 3 meaningful relationships – people with whom they can truly connect and confide. The irony of the “connectedness” that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram proffer is that we’re more disconnected and lonely than ever.

Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone and social connection isn’t the same thing as human interaction.

We know, thanks to a growing body of research, that loneliness and connectedness aren’t external conditions; they are psychological states. One can have thousands of online friends, followers, and connections and yet feel completely alone.

Back in the 1990s, scholars started calling the contradiction between an increased opportunity to connect and a lack of human connection the “Internet paradox.” A prominent 1998 study on the Internet paradox by a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon showed a correlation between increased Internet usage and increased loneliness.

Fast forward to 2010 when the use of social networks had exploded. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center examined the impact they had on personal and professional relationships. Participants were asked to “share your view of the internet’s influence on the future of human relationships in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in human and community relations?” Overwhelmingly, the subjects predicted that the Internet would be a positive force in social relationships in 2020.

Oh, how time flies! Here we are in 2020 with more technology at our fingertips than ever to connect us. And yet, a nationwide survey of 20,000 adults shows that we are more disconnected than ever. In fact, “most Americans lack meaningful relationships and feel disconnected.” Most of us are lonely more often than not.

However, we can’t blame loneliness on Facebook or Twitter. Social media platforms are merely the next evolution in a long history of technology-inspired interference with human interaction. The invention of the telephone decreased the number of people who would have otherwise just walked next door to talk to a neighbor. Self-checkouts at the grocery store enable us to stock the pantry without speaking to a register clerk. Mobile apps and kiosks at fast-food restaurants make it possible to order, pay, and pick up a meal without interacting with a single human being.

Every time I go to the post office, I have a choice. I can take my package to the postal worker or I can bypass the postal worker and let the machine serve me. Without exception, I’ll wait for a machine before I wait for the person. I can say that it’s faster and more convenient, but the truth is that technology has just made it easy not to interact with real people.

Which raises a few fundamental questions:

Have social networks and technology skewed our definition of what it means to interact with others?

Just as technology makes it easier for people to connect and engage, does it also make it easier for people to disconnect and disengage?

A few weeks ago, I shared a piece titled, How Much is a “Like” Worth? Whether you blog, vlog, or share someone else’s, checking all those looks, likes, and shares is part of the game. The pull of social media addiction isn’t all in our heads. It’s quite real, thanks to two neurotransmitters: dopamine and oxytocin.

Every positive interaction on social media activates the reward center in the brain and gives us a little boost of dopamine. It feels good and so we keep coming back for more. When we connect with others, the brain produces a hormone called oxytocin.  It’s often called the cuddle drug or the love hormone because the strongest surges are produced during breastfeeding and sex.  But, we generate it when we feel a sense of belonging or connection. And, the brain has a hard time differentiating between a face-to-face connection and an online connection.

When we share content that people like and share and comment on, we get a healthy dose of those good chemicals. But, we also gain social currency. Overwhelmingly, people feel better about themselves when others react positively to what they post on social media. Conversely, when people don’t acknowledge us online, our social currency goes down along with our self-image.

When people see and hear me, I know I’m important.


When people don’t see and hear me, I know I’m insignificant.

While technology and social media enable us to interact with people, enhance communication and personal connections, it also provides just as many opportunities for rejection and ostracism as it does for connection. Blocking, unfriending, muting, unfollowing, and ghosting all make disconnecting and terminating relationships quick and easy. Unfortunately, not painless. While it may seem hypersensitive and dramatic to classify these behaviors as hurtful, it’s the way we are wired to experience social rejection.

The same areas in our brains are activated when we experience social rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why we feel hurt when only 5 people like that selfie or our closest colleagues don’t retweet that LinkedIn article. It’s why ghosting is considered a form of emotional cruelty.

The irony of social media lies in the illusion of connection. We look to technology to engage with others and that same technology makes it easier to disengage and protect ourselves from human to human interaction. Never before have we had more opportunities for social interaction. Perhaps it’s time to redefine the meaning of engagement.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. “The invention of the telephone decreased the number of people who would have otherwise just walked next door to talk to a neighbor. Self-checkouts at the grocery store enable us to stock the pantry without speaking to a register clerk. Mobile apps and kiosks at fast-food restaurants make it possible to order, pay, and pick up a meal without interacting with a single human being.”

    you hit the nail there.

    Our society, not necessarily social media, our technology phones, t.v. to entertain us,….has made us be more apart.

    The Media Monopoly was a great book on the topic of Mass Media, by Ben Bagdikian. In it he pointed out: Every home in the US in the 80 and 90’s had 2 televisions per household.

    If we are honest we will say the T.V. and many other media forms has also taken the place of family. Kids go to magazines or youtube for direction about relationships… Our education system has taken the place of family too. Parents assume or expect teachers to teach them things they should be teaching their children.

    I feel social media is perfect for getting connected with people in your region. I’ve interacted with a few people here on LI who are in my city and they’ve become friends, who I interact and work with too.

    I say all of this while having never been on FB, Twitter, or any other Social media, besides, LI.
    Great article as always Melissa

  2. The world is changing and with the spread of social networks new behaviors have been identified in the societies and individuals who make them up. In the field of health there is talk of a new kind of “addictions”. It is mainly in these cases of psychological dependence. However, any pleasant behavior risks becoming a behavior that creates psychological dependence. The substantial difference with substance addiction is that in order to cure a psychological addiction the person must learn to control his impulses.
    Some studies have linked addiction to social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with low self-esteem. Results that have been supported by the presence of depressive symptoms and a lack of social skills. The reason lies in the fact that in the presence of the numerous publications of the life of others, the dependent person makes continuous comparisons and, finally, comes to the conclusion that his life is boring, sad and empty. Without realizing that it is taking the time it could take to enrich it.
    On the other hand, self-esteem is also negatively affected when, to impress others, you invent a life that you don’t have in order to get more likes or comments. Even if you experience a pleasant intense but brief feeling when you publish something, this will not subsequently strengthen your personal evaluation, but you can become slaves to the opinions and judgments of others.
    However, social networks are not evil nor are they dangerous in themselves. It is the use we make of it. It is therefore very important to consider to what extent they are a priority in our life. Never what has to do with the outside gives us the happiness that we really want and need, because this is accessible only from the inside.

  3. Melissa, I don’t even know where to begin. This article is full of great insights, and it had my mind churning when I read it first thing this morning. Engagement does feel lost in translation, and perhaps it is time to redefine it. I love technology and the rate at which it advances. It’s made many facets of our lives easier, simplified processes, and given us so much at our fingertips. It’s taken instant gratification to new heights and given us platforms to use our voices in ways we couldn’t before. At so many intersections, the digital world’s predominance is front and center. But, therein is the catch 22.

    Somehow along the way, things morphed – and maybe even we did too. I often ponder how we’ve let the art of conversation flounder. As our f2f interaction decreases, it does have an effect on us – whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I’m guilty of it. I text when I should call. I email when I could just as easily walk down the hall to someone’s office or work station. I bury my head in my device perhaps to avoid or check out momentarily. So I’m not judging. But, it makes me sad at times how the digital world has crossed our wires. I’m hopeful though that maybe we can take back control. It starts with us. We can learn to engage differently. We can put down the device, look at the person across from us, and have a real interaction.

    As for your video on ghosting, mind, blown. Excellent information and much to ponder.

    Always a pleasure learning new things from you, Melissa. Thanks for sharing your passion with us!

    • Laura, you make such great points here. I text when I should call, I email when a face to face conversation would work better, and I spend hours on my device to “stay current.” The example I use in the piece about going to the post office is one that smacked me right between the eyes when I really stopped to think about it. I could justify it by saying that it’s easier, faster, whatever to use the machine. But that quick interaction with a postal worker doesn’t take that much more time and it’s one small opportunity to put a positive ripple out in the world. I’ve been much more intentional about those kinds of things in my daily routine and it makes all the difference in the world!
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. As always, I appreciate your perspective and very kind words!

  4. Melissa, this is excellent. And frightening. I know that I have to remind myself to “put down the Oxytocin” when I post something, so I don’t keep checking it, as I recognize the addictive behavior for what it is. On my personal FB page, since I rarely post, when I do I never get any likes or comments more likely because of the algorithm than anything, but it, admittedly, still hurts. These are things we didn’t have to deal with 10 years ago. I’m grateful my teen could care less about social media, but there’s similar issues with gaming, which is something we deal with at home. Someday do a piece on that, will ya?!

    • The saving grace may be that the brain just works that way, Kimberly. I’m right there with you. I try hard to focus on the rich interaction inspired by a post or comment (like this one!) instead of the numbers, but I think it requires a shift in intention rather than just a shift in focus. Also, I wonder how people who rarely experience this kind of rich interaction and discussion will see the value.

      And, gaming…. that is definitely a topic we could dig into!
      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  5. I love this article and often talk about the very issue of loneliness. Social media has its perks with the ability to convey information with the click of a finger, as we can see here. I prefer Linked In, where there is less drama, and I use FB for the same purpose, sharing a professional message. What I loathe is the exhibitionistic quality, which all of us are tempted by as well as the vitriol. No matter its strengths and purpose, nothing replaces the live human connection. Thank you for this!💖

    • I’m with you on preferring LI over FB, Darlene. I’m pretty disconnected from FB these days. Part of it is a time issue. I can’t do it all and I have to decide where to invest my energy. Part of it is what you describe here so well: “the exhibitionistic quality, which all of us are tempted by as well as the vitriol.” Amen! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  6. Melissa – I know that I must sound like a broken record relative to your writing and Neuro Nuggets, but your video on ghosting was particularly good; it really hit me like that proverbial punch in the gut. I don’t know what it is about the coaching profession – my inner critic says “It’s your crappy coaching, Jeff!” – but I’ve had a number of clients who simply stopped responding. Sometimes our conversations may have touched a nerve, illuminating something painful from the past, but many times, we were just making what seemed to be good progress toward the client’s goal and then “whoof.” Gone. I’ll make an inquiry if the client is “OK,” but even that gets no response. Wha? I’m definitely experiencing some of that Zeigarnik Effect going on.

    Thank you for illuminating this phenom. So easy to hurt one another in this era of supposed social contact.

    • It happens to all of us, Jeff. I gives me comfort to know why (being the “why child” that I am). I know that I also tend to take things much more personally than others intend. I’m going to take your kind words very personally today. Thank you!! :)

  7. Melissa, thank you for writing and sharing your article. In general social media leads to more people connecting and engaging than not connected and disengaged. How many people met and wound up in a relationship which they would not have if it were not for social media. Social Media is getting a very undeserved bad rap. We should be thankful we have it instead of harping on the negatives as too many people seem to do.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts on this one, Joel. We can find good or evil in just about anything. The key is intention, I think. A hammer can be a wonderful tool to build a house with. The same hammer can be a weapon if used to bash someone’s head in. What is the intention of the user? To build something or kill something?

  8. What an incredibly rich and meaningful post and video nugget, Melissa! Navigating the pain of all types of rejection can be some of the bravest work we do as human beings. Learning pathways to create meaningful bonds with high quality people who will be there for us through thick and thin, heartbreak and hilarity can also be some of the most courageous healing work we do. Creating a forever bond with the one person who you can treat as a precious human being for the rest of your life can be a transformation-for that person is you.

    Thank you so much for this fascinating and important post/video. Your work and contribution to our world remains invaluable!!

    And I’m thrilled to learn that I’m an outlier for I have at least 10 people who I feel absolutely, deeply connected to-they’d be there for me and I’d be there for them. What a rich treasure that I do not ever take for granted. I live utterly grateful for these beautiful, loving, accepting people. I call them my beloved ones – only two of them are blood family.

    • You are most definitely an outlier, Laura, but not just for the number of friends you have. You share lessons with me all the time about how to see the world differently. For that I’m very grateful! I’m quite fortunate to have connected with you!

  9. Fantastic thoughts and facts here, Melissa. So many choices of where one can point our energies and if we gravitate to desiring a dopamine and serotonin top-up. I choose balance for the moment between technology and really nurturing those face-to-face flesh-to-flesh connections in my world. I hope that is possible. I will give it my best shot indeed. Thanks, I loved this!

  10. Great stuff as always Melissa!

    I think many of us can relate to being “ghosted” at one time or another, and perhaps several times. But as I reflect on this, I also can see where I may have been perceived as “ghosting” someone else. As you clearly point out, intent isn’t really relevant, its about what the other person perceives. In my personal case, I really backed off social media after some major life shifts, the loss of my father-in-law in 2018 and the loss of my sister just this past September. Obviously, no ill intent, but at the same time, many personal connections (and I’m thinking of our #NLV tribe), have admittedly been neglected. I know this because many of our mutual friends have reached out asking “are you OK”, or “where have you been”. For that I am grateful.

    Anyway, this certainly hit me a little bit as fodder for some self reflection. . .

    Thanks for that!

  11. Such rich observations and insights, Melissa. Your closing line is a powerful call to action, “Perhaps it’s time to redefine the meaning of engagement.”

    In the last week, I heard a statistic that has lodged in my brain — “75% of teenagers have their heads down 75% of the time”. It’s not just adults. Look around — people are glued to the screens of their devices when the opportunity for real-time, real-life connection is right in front of them.

    Let’s enjoy rich and robust interactions and engagements…in real life, with real people.