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internet-addiction-newsweek-guy-in-keybaordYears ago, when I was young, I was a party girl. Up all night, drinking and smoking, dancing on bar tops, making friends and having fun.

Until, it stopped being fun.

I remember the exact moment that happened. I was at an after-hours party and everyone was wasted. But despite the lack of sobriety in the room, the people in it were clinging to one another like life rafts in a storm.

Everyone was locked in conversations that were unheard monologues or fantastic lies (and usually both.) The room was full of individuals desperately trying to connect to someone, or anyone. And through the haze of cigarette smoke and vodka I saw that loneliness was driving the behavior that was ultimately responsible for the inability to find the acceptance, love, and comfort that was sought.

And what I see in social media is no different. Unfortunately, what passes for acceptance, love, and comfort online is the shallow fodder that feeds the ego and not the soul.

Social media can shine a spotlight on your external life: your appearance, possessions, and wealth. What most choose to post and share are idealized images and narratives. And while we all can create a life online that does not actually exist, earning praise in form of ‘likes’ and ‘followers,’ it does not change our immediate lives.

But within our immediate lives we are expected to be more, and do more, by ourselves.

In ages past, most people never traveled farther than 50 miles from where they were born. They lived close to family and knew their neighbors. Their neighbors also knew them – really knew them, the good and the bad. Whether they were liked or not, they were part of their community. And when they died they were remembered.

mag-article-largeToday, our lives have become disrupted. Our families are scattered across continents, and we move regularly to chase our dreams, or just find work. There is a bind social media has us in – we tell ourselves that it is a tool to help us maintain our relationships, but it has slowly replaced them.

Sadly, the virtual can not replace reality.

As we move through the world we are often strangers, and made to feel unwelcome by people who are feeling the same exact isolation. People have forgotten how to be a friend and how to be part of a community. Social media has given the lonely a means to be heard, but we have forgotten how to listen.

The voyeurs that scroll through social media are not listening any better than a drunken party goer. They may nod in agreement and pat you on the back, but you and your contributions are forgotten quickly. Just like the drunken party goers, they are waiting for reciprocation, for the chance to tell you their story, for you to ‘like’ and ‘share’ and comment on their posts.

And all that is left is the cacophony of a party that has lasted too long because the guests have no one waiting for them at home.

Loneliness is a need to be heard, and listening is a lost art.

Listening is more than anticipating your own response. It is more than being passively entertained. It is about feeling the emotions described, taking the time to think about what is being said, and even considering something that you would have otherwise disagreed with.

Listening is the ability to know someone, not just through their words, but through their silence. We can hear our loved ones through the wrinkle at the corner of their eye as they begin to laugh, or understand the frustration of a friend through their posture.

The hardest part of listening is being at someone’s side.

The desperation that drives people to try to connect with others online is the same desperation that stops them from forming any real and meaningful connections. What exists in the ether of the internet can never compare to the real experience of having your hand held, or looking someone in the eye as they tell you they love you.

It is time to put aside our laptops and phones and be present with the people already around us. It is time for us to try to connect with our coworkers and neighbors. It is time for us to abandon the desires of our ego, to impress strangers and be adored by a faceless crowd, so that we can find real and meaningful connection with the people already around us.

It is time to start living the lives we already have.