Media Makes You Lonely

NB: I wrote shortly after moving to Glasgow in 2010, hence the outdated celebrity references. If I were less lazy I could scrounge up contemporary examples but I’m not. Enjoy.

Flat hunting in a strange city, in the rain, with a head cold, is not a joyous task. Though I’ve moved across countries and continents solo often enough it shouldn’t bother me, I never get used to the initial sense of aloneness. Apropos that in this condition I read the Mental Health Foundation finding that 53% of 18-34 year-olds have felt depressed because they feel alone. My first thought is: Me too. Self-dramatisation aside, there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. What part does media play in causing people to experience aloneness as loneliness?

The cheap, glossy magazines lying next to me are part of the answer; as are the hours I spent on Facebook this morning; and the propensity of the kids in my hostel to huddle behind their laptops watching films. When we are alone or in an unfamiliar setting media entertains us, comforts us, gives us a sense of purpose, or at least helps kill time. This is great, as long as our flirtation with social networking and heat is placed in the context of meaningful interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, the longer we are alone the more time we spend immersed in media, and the more warped our perception of ‘normal’ becomes. The longer we gaze at airbrushed celebrities, or absorb the sitcom notion that every crisis can be resolved in 30 minutes, the more hopeless and chaotic our lives look by comparison.

An example: the Sun recently praised Cheryl Cole for trying to “rush through a quickie divorce because she is determined [Ashley] must go into the World Cup without being distracted by “emotional turmoil”’ Props to Cheryl for her attempted magnanimity, but does anyone with the slightest grip on reality believe that divorce is an emotional cold sore that can healed and be forgotten in days? Or take Polly Vernon in Grazia on Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson’s break-up: “While I feel ghastly for Charlotte Church… I can’t help but notice she’s looking fantastically hot. Slimmer, yup… But she’s also way better dressed.” Though Vernon at least pays lip service to the notion that ending a long-term relationship with the father of your two children must be awful (“that pain, people!”) her glee over Charlotte’s style (“I wholly covet the mid-heel studded suede booties in which she was papped, post-split”) suggests that good shoes make up for major emotional trauma.

The media, perforce, truncates. It is not designed to communicate the weeks, months, or years of heartache, tears, arguments, recriminations, forgiveness, vacillation, doubt, frustration, anger, humiliation, denial and resignation that are surely the constituent parts of a marriage break-up, so it skips from the wedding to the requisite “I Will Survive” interview given by the smiling divorcee. If it is frivolous, it is not entirely to blame; human emotions and relationships are too complex and varied to be authentically reproduced in two dimensions. Nevertheless, it bears some responsibility for reducing the parts of life that matter most to ellipses between the ‘before-and-after’ photos. And it is definitely culpable for suggesting, through advertising, that life is perfectible with the click of a mouse, or three easy payments of £19.99 (plus P&P).

Is it any wonder that, faced with endless images of perfection and exhortations to shop our way to happiness, solitude takes on a threatening hue, and the longer we spend gawping at TV the worse we feel? Without the counterbalance of real, satisfying, challenging, meaningful human relationships we risk falling prey to the lurid fiction of a world where troublesome conversations disappear in a mouse click and emoticons replace emotions.

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