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Arthur C. Brooks is a professor at both the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, where he teaches public and nonprofit leadership and management practice. Before joining Harvard in[…]

Thanks to modern-day social media, it’s easier than ever to connect with the people you care about. But is this really the case? Professor Arthur Brooks discusses how social media is actually harming our ability to socialize, and proposes a way to fix it. 

Oxytocin, the bonding neuropeptide in our brains, needs eye contact and touch—things we don’t get from Zoom or social media. This lack leaves us feeling hungrier for connection, which only fuels the loneliness epidemic, and causes us to further distance ourselves from others. 

Does this mean we should ban social media and prevent young people from using it? Brooks says no, social media can be a wonderful complement to real-life interactions, like when it is used to arrange plans to meet up with friends. If social media substitutes for real-life relationships, it harms our happiness. If it complements them, it can be beneficial. We need connection now more than ever, and using social media wisely can help us stay connected and support our mental well-being.

Arthur Brooks: The world is experiencing a loneliness epidemic. How strange, because we have so many new ways to be in touch with the people that we love. We can move away and still see their faces. Why is it that we're actually getting lonelier? Well, the answer to that question is that the way that we stay in touch with each other is inadequate to what our brains and hearts need.

Social media has changed the way that we pursue friendship. A lot of young people feel uncomfortable in real life. It doesn't feel right to see people in person. It might feel confrontational. It might feel like you have some sort of performance anxiety. More and more young people, they're comfortable talking to other people as long as it's mediated technologically.

There's a neuropeptide in the human brain called 'oxytocin.' That's the intensely pleasurable hormone that links us to our kin, to our friends, to our loved ones, to our families. But you don't get it over Zoom screens and even less over social media. And so you'll be hungry, you'll be lonely, and so you'll binge even more on the social media, and it'll get worse and worse and worse. That's a lot of the reason that we have a loneliness epidemic. We're trying to mediate our relationships with tools that don't do a good job.

Oxytocin requires two things: eye contact and touch. Those are exactly the two things that you don't get when your relationships are mediated by technology. So the best way that you can get oxytocin, and thus the satisfaction that you need from your relationships, has to be somebody who's a real person with you. Touch their hand, look 'em in the eye. Your brain needs it. Your brain craves it. That's- your brain is evolved. Real life is awesome, but you gotta experience it, and you can't be distracted from it systematically by these technological methods.

So a natural question that comes from all of this is: Should we have a complete ban on it in our lives? Should we make it impossible for our kids to use? The answer to that is not necessarily. Here's the iron rule: If something is a substitute for in real life relationships, it's gonna be bad for your happiness. If something is a compliment to it, it can be really productive and good.

So how do you use social media? That's what really matters. Do you use social media to figure out where you're gonna meet your friends and what they're up to so you can go see 'em? Great, but that doesn't take very long. You don't need six hours on Instagram to do that. What you need is a specific period of time that you dedicate to actually catching up with the people in your life that you love.