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  • Writer's pictureJulie Nicole

The Lonely Facebook Nation

Facebook has over one billion users on it's site with people averaging hundreds and even thousands of friends. With the click of a button we can reach people around the world and discuss every topic from politics and gun regulation to what Kim Kardashian was wearing at the beach or what you fixed for dinner last night.

We can see pictures of your son's first day at school, the new car you bought, the big house you're moving into and the likes and congratulations for your job promotion. We get notified of party invites and even the death of loved ones on Facebook. We see your daily filtered selfies where you look suspiciously better and more beautified than you ever have in person and the happy family pics where no one is ever sad, depressed, lonely or fights.

We see you at the restaurants seated at the dinner table of four where no one speaks or interacts, but sits quietly with their eyes and fingers fixated on their smartphone scrolling through their Facebook posts to see what other people are doing with their lives, and then quietly envying how everyone else looks so much happier than they are.

We are soooo connected, but soooo disconnected. Maybe that's why we are a lonely nation.

According to an article that appeared in Fortune magazine, in the 70's and 80's the number of Americans reporting that they regularly or frequently felt lonely was between 11% and 20%. In 2010 the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) did a study and found it had doubled and was now between 40% and 45%.

In fact, we are becoming so lonely as a culture that some health experts are even calling it an epidemic and a public health risk. At the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, research pointed out a connection between loneliness and premature death. Researchers indicated that loneliness had the same effect on mortality rates as obesity.

Could increasing loneliness possibly be a contributing factor for heart related deaths in the U.S.? This thought occurred to me recently when my father was rushed into emergency open heart surgery for blocked arteries. Within a few weeks time I began hearing other reports of friends who had family members or loved ones who had either died from a sudden heart attack or were admitted to the hospital for other heart related problems.

I began to wonder if these heart problems were a symptom of a much deeper "heart" related issue than mere cardiovascular ailments. And not to my surprise, research seems to be proving my suspicions correct.

Heart disease is the number one death in the United States and studies are now proving that loneliness actually affects the heart. Research has shown that loneliness increases vascular resistance, which moves blood to the heart and muscles. As you get older this causes higher blood pressure.

Loneliness also increases base-line levels of cortisol, which is a powerful stress hormone and loneliness even affects our sleep patterns, causing fragmented sleep. All of these things in and of themselves are not health threats, however, when a person experiences these symptoms from loneliness for long periods of time it begins to affect the heart.

So, this brings me to my earlier conclusion, that our nation's heart-related deaths can partly be contributed to a lonely nation, and dare we say....Facebook. Okay, well, I'm not going to put all of this on Facebook, but we can certainly see a connection between the rise of loneliness and the rise of technology and social media.

Before the broad use of Internet, people's primary interactions with people were face to face. You went to the bank to deposit your check each week and you knew your bank teller's name. When you went to the grocery you would stand and chat with your checkout girl as she added up your groceries. If you had a crush on a girl at school you had to ask her for her number, then call her house and politely ask her mother or father if you could speak to their daughter. Then you would spend hours talking on the phone until your parents would make you hang up, or if you really liked the person you would fall asleep listening to one another breathe on the other line.

Today we don't even see the bank teller. We have our checks direct deposited or we use apps to transfer money. At the grocery we go through self-check out counters where we don't even have to speak to anyone. And as for dating...what is that? Today we have Tinder where you decide in two seconds by looking at a picture (that may or may not even be real - hence catfishing) whether to dismiss them with a swipe.

There's no hour long, late night calls of laughter and exchange of personal voices and emotions, only words on a screen that after awhile don't have much differentiation from all the other words intermixed with the rest of your text messages. Swipe...swipe...delete....

More often than not, "dating" today has been reduced to sexting and exchanging shirtless ab, breast and booty pics within hours of so-called meeting, that results in nothing more than shallow hook-ups where no real intimate connections or relationships result.

Back in the day it meant driving to the girl's house, nervously meeting her parents and then after their approval, driving with her seated beside you and treating her to either a movie or dinner as you sat and talked and got to know one another.

Years ago it wasn't uncommon for groups of friends to gather around on Friday nights playing cards, munching on snacks and laughing together as their kids played and formed life-long bonds.

And don't even mention family reunions and get-togethers. Like clockwork, every year your whole entire family unit - aunts, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, the drunk uncle that everyone couldn't stand, (but still loved and accepted because he was family), would get together with all of their favorite home cooked recipes and everyone would talk and reminisce for hours upon hours.

Today, families are spread across in different states, you have exes and stepfamilies that you have to divide your time between, jaded siblings, kids who don't understand or see the value in reunions because they grew up with absent fathers and working single-mothers, who through no fault of their own,, may not have been able to instill in them the importance of making time to gather together in order to maintain the family unit.

And so you have a generation today who has replaced phone calls with texting, meeting face to face with FaceTime, and replaced gathering with family, friends and community with their "friends" on Facebook.

But in the midnight hour when a crisis hits and your world is crashing down around you, you have 1,500 Facebook friends and nobody to call. You have plenty of options available for casual sex, but if you're short on rent nobody is available.

The truth of the matter is we were never created to exist this way. We were created for intimate, meaningful relationships. Not only do fragmented, disconnections from people affect our hearts, it also affects our brains. This has been proven true through a study that was done on children who were in Romanian orphanages. Up until the 1990's Romanian orphanages were notorious for being overcrowded and void of nurturing and love.

According to Live Science, Nathan Fox, a child development researcher at the University of Maryland, indicated that their research showed that early institutionalization changed both the structure and function of the brain. Any time spent in an institution shrunk the volume of gray matter or brain cell bodies in the brain. However, the main contributing factor to decreases in development appeared to be directly related to whether or not the child had a connection with someone who cared about them. "The idea is that those kids who develop a secure attachment actually show enhanced brain activity at age eight," Fox said.

So, how do we solve this problem? Well, one article I read made the suggestion that we should start pumping lonely people with pills. Yep, you got that right - a "lonely pill". They are currently doing studies on a steroid pill being created to treat chronic loneliness. I guess we shouldn't be surprised, as our society thinks there's a pill to treat everything.

But, I have a better suggestion, one that doesn't have all those long list of side effects we see at the end of commercials for drugs these days. It's called relationships. In order to be healthy human beings we need bonds with people who genuinely care about us that we know we can depend on for moral, social and physical support. We also need human touch (and just random sexual contact doesn't suffice), and face-to-face interaction.

There is something that takes place between people when they are face-to-face that doesn't exist through digital communication. According to an article that appeared in Dr. Mercola's Natural Health Newsletter, researchers from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, including Alex Pentland and colleagues, have further revealed that face-to-face meetings allow members to come up with more ideas and become more capable as a group compared to virtual meetings.

One study showed that brainstorming sessions done face-to-face generated 30 percent more ideas than those done through virtual meetings. Apparently, something deeply essential is lost in translation through virtual communication. As Newsweek reported, "What matters are the many ways we connect only when we’re physically together."

So, I'm not here to tell you to delete your Facebook account. However, I am here to tell you the next time you get ready to text someone, pick up the phone and call them instead, and instead of FaceTiming your kids or your parents over the holidays plan a trip to visit next year. Make it a point to have physical interaction with people and build long-term relationships with people that matter.

I'd rather have one or two great friends who know everything about me, that I can depend on to help pay that rent or call at 2 a.m. and they'll take my call, than 5,000 Facebook friends any day.

And next time you're with a good friend or out to dinner stop looking at Facebook to see what other people are doing and find out how the person sitting in front of you is doing. These are the issues of the heart that really matter and you just mind find out that this is the cure for your loneliness and your heart disease.

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