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Unfortunate Allies: The Coronavirus and Loneliness

Steps to alleviate loneliness during isolation.

Guest post by Dr. Anthony Silard

In the face of COVID-19, many of us have become miserable vessels of stress and angst. An important question is how can we shift away from toxic negative emotions such as fear and panic and toward positive emotions such as serenity, happiness, and a renewed enthusiasm about our lives? Numerous studies have found that the socioemotional support we give to and receive from others is one of the most critical factors in bringing about these highly desirable emotions.

Lonelier than Ever

Yet, we’ve become stunningly deficient at giving and receiving such support. According to a Cigna study released just over a month ago, over three of every five Americans are lonely (as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale)—the highest level in recorded history. Our average number of close friends whom we can talk with about important issues (such as the coronavirus) has shrunk from three to two, with over 25 percent of respondents reporting they have no close friends whatsoever with whom to discuss what matters to them. Imagine how these people—a quarter of the U.S. population—are now feeling isolated and alone in the face of this current existential threat.

And what is the advice we’re receiving about how to avoid contracting the coronavirus? Isolate ourselves even more. Given the profound suffering of our current generation—loneliness—the idea of even more social isolation is no doubt stoking the coals of fear even more. Even pre-coronavirus, we couldn’t cope: San Diego State psychologist Jean Twenge documents how the teen suicide rate, for the first time in recorded history, has surpassed the teen homicide rate; and in fact is now 32 percent higher.

At my conferences, I help participants to understand their fears by breaking them into pairs. The first person asks the second person, “What are you afraid of?” After the second person responds, the first person asks, “Why are you afraid of that?” Once the second person again replies, the first person says, “Thank you. And why are you afraid of that?” This process continues for five minutes (after which they switch roles) so participants can acknowledge the true source of their fear.

If you were to ask yourself, “Why am I afraid of the coronavirus?” you might respond with something along the lines of, “Because I’m afraid of death.” If you were then to ask yourself, “And why am I afraid of death?” and continue to plumb the depths of your fear, you may come to an important realization: it is actually being alone in a dark place without anyone you care about that drives your fear. But that is how most of us are currently living. Substitute “in front of a screen” for “in a dark place” and you arrive at a dystopian picture not of our future, but our present reality.

Numerous studies have found that our devices increase our loneliness, primarily from a “displacement effect”—more time online means less time in person and on the phone with family members and friends and more disconnection from our social environment. This effect was first discovered in a study of over four thousand individuals from across America led by Stanford social scientist Norman Nie.

Recent research supports this displacement effect and offers an even worse prognosis: phone use does not only equate to less face-to-face time with the people we care about, but actually causes us to enjoy this in-person time less. Psychologists from the University of British Columbia and the University of Virginia recruited over 300 students and community residents and asked them to eat a meal at a restaurant with family or friends. Some participants were asked to keep their phones on the table while others were instructed to put their phones away during the meal. When phones were present during the meal, the participants felt distracted and enjoyed spending time with their friends and family less.

A second study, in which participants kept their phones present or absent during interactions with others and reported how they felt five times per day, yielded similar results: when their phones were present, they experienced more distraction and less enjoyment of their face-to-face interactions. Extending this research, a 2016 study in Computers in Human Behavior found that in romantic relationships, this reduced satisfaction of in-person time when a phone is visible is attributable to conflict over when each partner is using their phone. (Disclosure: My wife and I are no strangers to this conflict.)

When I asked lead researcher Ryan Dwyer why participants enjoyed speaking with people in person less the more they used their phones, he replied, “The culprit is distraction. Using your phone during an interaction makes it harder to engage with your conversation partner, which may stunt conversation and lead to more boring interactions.”

Fueled by the polarization of our society along racial, gender, age, and other demographic lines, our screen-induced loneliness leads us down a path of rumination and catastrophizing over the society we no longer feel we fit into. The lack of restraint, uninhibited “flaming” (visceral internet-mediated anger) and subsequent vitriol we experience on social media that stem from seeing not real people, but a sea of meticulously curated social media profiles make us feel alienated from others. If in doubt, guess what the #1 reported emotion of Facebook users is? Envy.

The Vicious Cycle of Loneliness

To make matters even worse, our loneliness perpetuates itself. When we are lonely, we become hyper-sensitive to social encounters. In addition, as I discovered in two recently published studies I conducted with Sarah Wright of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, we often feel more awkward and uncomfortable when in such encounters, leading to less competent social overtures that cause others to avoid us even more.

So what to do? Disentangle working and living remotely from being lonely. Direct your use of technology during this quarantine period rather than having it direct you. Don’t use your phone as a manic, get-the-most-current-update-on-coronavirus mechanism that keeps you in a constant state of fear and hyperarousal (the constant cortisol release from which impairs your immune system—a particularly bad idea if you were to contract coronavirus). Instead, use your phone as … a phone. Reach out to someone. Connect with the people you love and care about. More than you currently are.

They, just like you, are sitting around and would likely welcome this social opportunity. There are novel ways of making these connections in our currently social-distanced word. Nothing like a quarantine to help us realize that, as I describe in my new book Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, we go online seeking social connection but end up with only social information, which ultimately does not fulfill us.

Who knows? Once COVID-19 has subsided—which, if we learn from China’s response, will hopefully be soon—you may actually have developed new strategies for interacting with the people who really matter to you that will carry you forward into a more human, socially robust, meaningful life.

Dr. Anthony Silard is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020.

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