Isolation Nation

What is driving America's trend toward social disengagement?

Posted Jan 15, 2019

NicolasMcComber/GettyImages
Source: NicolasMcComber/GettyImages

When it comes to property and human capital, our postmodern society is wealthier than ever. In terms of social capital, we are slowly inching toward the poverty line, metaphorically speaking. “Social capital,” which seems to be declining at an alarming rate, refers to the social networks of relationships among people who live in a particular society and the norms of reciprocity, trust, and cooperation to which those networks give rise. Social Capital Theory posits that our lives are made more productive with social ties. Just as we have basic needs for food, water and shelter, the need for social connection is crucial to our well-being. Sadly, as our communities are unraveling, Americans are becoming more isolated and disengaged than ever before.

The weakening of community networks didn’t just occur overnight

Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who report being lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. More than a quarter of the population lives alone, and marriage rates and number of kids per household are dropping. According to researchers, formal group membership in professional and local community organizations has declined by 10–20 percent over the last five decades. Participation in social groups has been on a downward slope for years and it only appears to continue today.

As our civic engagement declines, so too does our civil engagement. Not surprisingly, recent analyses have suggested that widespread smartphone use has diminished the quality of our interpersonal exchanges. It has become acceptable to ignore texts and emails. If an invitation or even a salutation to a friend was extended in person, and the response was no response, this would be considered rude at the very least. But today, with texting and emailing becoming our primary modes of communication, this type of dismissive behavior has become the norm. And norms are what shape societies.

What is driving the trend toward isolation?

This is no one single culprit responsible for America’s disengagement. A multitude of contributing forces have given rise to our current state. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam attempts to solve the puzzle. “Postwar generations,” he writes, “are simply less community-oriented than their parents and grandparents—more materialistic, more cynical and less politically interested.” Drawing from research, Putnam lays out some of the most significant factors driving our social disconnectedness.

Changes in family structure

Families are spending less time together today than in previous generations. Over the last 30 years, family dinners and conversation declined more than 30 percent, which, according to the American College of Pediatricians, has a significant impact on children as they grow up. Children learn socialization through live interaction with adults, and when this is compromised, language delays can result. At one time, the classroom may have offered a satisfactory substitute to a lack of interaction at home. However, when the pressure to achieve at a high academic level in competition with peers takes priority, another area of socialization is lost.

Suburban sprawl

As many city dwellers began fleeing to the suburbs, farther apart from our neighbors, we traded tight communities for vast—yet mostly empty—spaces and empty voids we seek to fill with food, shopping, or television. Commutes are longer, usually spent alone in a car, draining time and energy and with them the inclination to participate in social or community groups.

Misguided priorities

Another factor Putnam and other researchers blame for our increasing social disengagement is misguided priorities. Sociologist Philip Slater, author of The Pursuit of Loneliness, writes that the root of disconnection in America is “the collective obsession with the success of the individual.” Though written more than 40 years ago, it appears not much has changed since. Money and status are increasingly prioritized, sometimes at the expense of the quality of our relationships. We were brought up in a culture that tells us that the more money we make, the more things we accumulate, the better title and fancier job we have, the happier we will be. However, the science tells us otherwise.

Technology

One of the biggest culprits of social isolation and disengagement, according to Putnam, is the “privatization of leisure time.” Technology and mass media have become the medium of choice through which many of us spend our free time—usually alone. This is sometimes true even when we are in the same room. The phrase alone together has become such a ubiquitous cultural reference that it is now the title of a television show.

The internet offers a wonderful alternative to stay connected for those who may be confined to the home due to health or age-related factors. The use of Skype and other VOIPs, for example, has made it easier for friends and families living on opposite sides of the world to keep in touch. Technology becomes detrimental when it is used as a primary form of communication, which, sadly, seems to be the direction in which we are headed. Although we cannot only blame modern technology, it has certainly made an already growing problem even worse.

Consequences of our disengagement

As multitudinous as the causes of social isolation and disengagement are, so too are the consequences. Higher rates of crime and violence, competitiveness, inequality, addiction and loneliness are some, to name a few. Those who experience chronic loneliness are at a significantly greater risk for developing the conditions that lead to premature death such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, altered immune systems, and depression.

It is important to note  the difference between loneliness and social isolation. Although they often co-occur, one does not necessarily beget the other.  Loneliness is a subjective feeling of distress, arising when social connections are perceived to be inadequate or unfulfilling. Social isolation is the absence of meaningful social relationships. It is possible to be isolated but not feel lonely, and vice versa. 

Public Health Implications

Nonetheless, self-reported feelings of loneliness  and the objective state of being socially isolated have negative effects on our health. There is compelling evidence that both are associated with poorer physical, mental and emotional well-being. So much so that the American Psychological Association (APA) is calling for social connection to be made a public health priority in the US.  Loneliness is as important a risk factor for premature death as obesity and smoking. The World Health Organization (WHO)  lists “social support networks” as a determinant of health. A sense of isolation or social rejection, researchers say, disrupts our cognitive abilities and our immune system, making us more susceptible to disease. Essentially, our disconnection is making us sicker and more addicted and our lives emptier.

A recent study examining the relative roles of social capital and income as determinants of happiness concluded, “Communities and nations with better social capital, in other words, quality social networks and social norms as well as high levels of trust, respond to crises and economic transitions more happily and effectively.”

We are hardwired for social connection. It is what enabled human beings to survive as a species—in other words, our interdependence is critical to our well-being and ability to thrive. “No democracy, and indeed no society,” says Putnam, “can be healthy without at least a modicum of this resource.

What can we do?

Putnam argues that America could be civically restored by encouraging adults to socialize, join more groups, or volunteer more in the community. Another way he suggests is through teaching children the value of social connection.

The APA is working on an agenda to integrate social relationships into current public health priorities in a manner that is more consistent with the empirical research, which involves "directing resources, time, and energy to those issues that are deemed most critical and practical to address”  . Some of the APA's recommendations include:

  • Greater priority on research and resources directed toward prevention efforts, education, public health policy and interventions.
  • Greater emphasis on social skills training for children in schools.
  • Doctors should be encouraged to include social connectedness in medical screening.
  • People should be preparing for retirement socially as well as financially (many social ties are related to the workplace.)
  • community planners should include shared social spaces that encourage gathering and interaction.

All human beings desire to thrive, as do societies. Perhaps instead of moving further and farther away from one another—geographically, socially, and politically—a better option would be to lean closer together. Ultimately, if we are to learn to live with one another, we must come to the realization that we cannot live without each other.

References

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Slater, P. E. (1970). The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Oxford, England: Beacon Press.