Social media and loneliness: How much is social media really about community?

Is social media about community when one in four Australians are lonely?

As the temperature increases, so too does my tendency to bake.

If I'm going to be stuck inside in the middle of the day sheltering from heat that'd fry eggs on a car bonnet, I want to get things done.

Never mind my overdue tax return or house cleaning, I have vultures, I mean young sons, to nourish.

Baking brings comfort linked to memories of my bush childhood - riding my pushie after school with my sisters in blistering heat through paddocks to burst in the door to find choc-chip cookies still warm from the oven. Just like a Meadow Lea ad, mum oughta be congratulated.

I recently tried my hand at lamingtons and, chuffed they tasted 400 per cent better than supermarket varietals, posted a shot of them on Instagram.

"Love a LAMO!" one person messaged, prompting me to mentally scramble those letters to arrive at LMAO (NB: for those over 50, this is millennial speak for Laughing My Arse Off. Not my favourite anagram, TBH, I mean, To Be Honest).

I've been ruminating about the meaning of community and whether social media is a hindrance or help in the struggle by most of us to form and maintain real connections in this batshit crazy existence we call life.

I think it all started when I caught up recently with cafe owner Dan Brown.

In life and on Instagram he's known as the Mullet Lord thanks to his hair, a shrine to that most celebrated of '80s hair styles. We met at a recycled clothes store where he once ran a pop-up cafe in Newcastle.

With his cheeky humour and optimism, not to mention his bronzed chest bursting out of his buttoned shirts, Dan was winning over men and women all over town. That he had overcome a near fatal battle with addiction in the years prior was neither here nor there, though it explains his joie de vivre.

WRITER: Penelope Green writes for the Newcastle Herald.

WRITER: Penelope Green writes for the Newcastle Herald.

Dan just opened a second café with his fiancée and when I popped in for a coffee we got talking the essence of community.

You see, Dan thought when he opened his first café that it was a business. But his authenticity ensured it became much more.

"I greet people at the door, remember their order and name. I don't hope that they enjoy my product, I trust they will, because it's made with love," he says.

Dan's customers have become friends who carry coffee to other customers, cart dirty dishes to the dishwasher and knock on his café door half an hour before he opens.

Some will soon attend his wedding.

"You can feel it, it's a vibe, a connection between food, people, coffee. A lot of people are yearning for it. When they feel it they return and we form a relationship," Dan says.

His words make perfect sense when considering that the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness is a real-life entity and some health professionals have warned that Australia is facing a "loneliness epidemic."

In 2018 the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology undertook what is billed as the most indepth study of loneliness in Australia.

Its survey of more than 1600 Australians found one in four of them suffer loneliness once a week. Loneliness that is is strongly connected to poorer quality of life, lower psychological wellbeing, higher social discomfort and poorer quality social networks.

Turns out loneliness is not exclusive to the elderly. It also dwells with the under 65s who have lost a partner and youth who appear popular on social media but lack meaningful relationships that ground them.

And with single parents like me. [Obviously it's a case-by-case situation, because between raising boisterous boys and my work, I personally don't have a nano-second for loneliness, but I'm also blessed with rock-solid support from family and friends].

If there's anyone to feel empathy for, it's the 500,000 people aged under 40 in Japan who, according to one survey, haven't left home or talked to a soul for six months.

How is it in this world of blanket social media, of being able to send messages to loved ones via multiple platforms at any minute cross country, that many of us still feel like a shag on a rock?

How is it in this world of blanket social media that many of us still feel like a shag on a rock?

Matilda Brown, actress-daughter of Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, may know.

On her last Instagram post, the new mum apologised to her 6767 organic (unpaid) Instagram followers for being MIA. Confessing a love-hate relationship with the platform, Brown declared she was quitting it.

"I don't feel that I can be a present mother, wifey and friend and have this app taking up precious moments and ... occupying mental space," she wrote. "Social media has a pretty firm grip on us all but I don't want to blame the device/technology anymore."

Labelling it an addiction, Brown said she needed time with loved ones, not her phone.

"I want to be in nature without feeling the need to post on stories and instead share these special moments with those in my immediate vicinity. I don't like the culture we've become. Where it's normal to check Instagram before saying good morning to our partner or sit opposite someone in a café and scroll through post after post instead of connecting with the person we are with."

Dan and Matilda have valid points but I'm not sure where the answer lies.

Social media is vital for small businesses with no PR budget. And it can be a remarkable tool - witness the runaway success of the #buyfromthebush campaign on Instagram.

It can be a comfort to those separated from friends because of life circumstances.

Motherhood is wonderful but it can be isolating, too. I use social media to connect with friends - some local, some abroad - who mean something to me. It's just that between wrangling deadlines and my boys, the odds of seeing them soon are slim.

And yet human connection is vital. It explains why people go to the same cafe or bar for years. Why Friends and Cheers raked in billions of fans and advertising spend.

The promotion of stylised lives that likely don't mirror reality can stick in my craw, but I'm not ready to quit the 'Gram yet.

I am, however, trying to curb my usage - less LAMO posts, more LMAO with the humans in my current orbit.

Got to run, it's witching hour.

This story Is social media about community when one in four Australians are lonely? first appeared on Newcastle Herald.