Isolation a factor in online affair

Published in the Courier Mail 28 July 2010

It’s almost incomprehensible. The recently released results of a new study show that 20% of Australians prefer to miss out on food or heating for a day, rather than lose internet access.

It begs the question – are we a nation of computer geeks or is there something more to our love affair with the internet? After all, doesn’t it seem a bit strange that one in five of us would pass up a goulash in order to google?

It’s almost incomprehensible. Almost, that is, until we realise the way in which the internet affects us, particularly in the case of social networking.

Some early, yet fascinating, results of studies into “neuroeconomics” – which looks at how people make decisions – hint at why we are getting so attached. One reason may be oxytocin, a bonding hormone which produces feelings of contentment, love, affection and calm. Dr Paul Zak, from Claremont Graduate University, has been studying how oxytocin affects consumer behaviour.

In one of Zak’s experiment, the subject had blood samples taken before and after twittering for ten minutes. When both blood samples were compared, it was discovered that the oxytocin levels increased by 13.2% after the online social networking session. Staggeringly, the increase in the hormone was comparable to that of a groom whose blood samples were taken before and after his wedding ceremony.

Conclusive? Not entirely. Interesting? Very!

A further noteworthy result of that study was the corresponding decline of the stress hormones ACTH and cortisol in the subject’s blood. After the twitter session, a decline of 14.9% and 10.8% respectively were recorded.

These results point to a possible cardiovascular health benefit associated with social networking, such as reduced likelihood of stroke and heart attack. Doctor Zak, explaining the results of the study, said “e-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection”.

Zak is not alone in advocating the idea that our brains respond to social networking they way they respond to falling in love. Zinc Research founder, Brian Singh, described social networking as “digital oxytocin”.

This could explain why 200 students who were asked to give up all media, including laptops and smartphones, for a day, described their deep angst at “losing their personal connections”. The University of Maryland study found, that in the student’s worlds, “going without media meant going without their friends and family.”

It’s little wonder then that so many of us are so loath to disconnect from the web.

We are social beings. Changing lifestyles, busier workplaces, urban sprawl and longer commutes have changed the way we socialise. It’s not unusual for us to have relational connections that don’t correspond with geographical locations. Our villages or tribes have moved online.

As many as one in three Australian’s identify that they are lonely, with incidents of loneliness peaking in their forties. Additionally, the number of lone person households in Australia has virtually doubled from 1971 to 2006, rising from 14% to 27% of all households. Therefore, in 2006, nearly two million adult Australians were living alone. When you walk into to an empty house at the end of the day, social networking is a way to fill the airwaves of your home with friend’s conversations.

Perhaps it seems strange for people to prefer internet access to eating. It’s a luxury to be able to choose of course, but if internet access is our antidote to loneliness, then the reason for the choice becomes clearer.

Mother Theresa said that loneliness, and the feeling of being unwanted, is the most terrible poverty. In a prosperous society, our souls are being starved.

When we consider all of this, the reason that internet access has become such an intrinsic part of our life starts to emerge.

It may just be that our hunger for community outweighs our hunger for food.


~ Ruth Limkin