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Loneliness

Can Your Phone Detect If You’re Lonely?

Smartphone sensors reveal loneliness predicts shorter social interactions.

Key points

  • According to one study, the less connected people feel to their family, friends, or social networks, the shorter conversations they tend to have.
  • The same study found that specifically, intimate and collective loneliness do not predict the rate or duration of social interaction.
  • Staying off one’s phone and having longer and more frequent conversations with others may decrease loneliness over time.

Do lonely people interact with others more frequently or chat for longer periods of time with the intent of forming social connection? To answer this question, researchers Timon Elmer and Gerine Lodder had people’s smartphones record all of their conversations for 10 weeks to find out.

When People Are Lonely, What Do They Do About It?

People need social connection. In fact, the need to belong, or connect with others, sits right in the center of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of fundamental needs for human survival. When people do not have a minimal number of close, positive relationships, they experience greater anxiety and anger, lower self-esteem, poorer blood pressure and sleep quality, and even a shorter lifespan. In fact, being chronically lonely can shorten people’s lifespan the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Psychologists believe there are three types of loneliness. Some people experience intimate loneliness when they feel they do not have someone with whom they can have a close or meaningful conversation. Others experience relational loneliness when they feel they don’t belong to family, friend, or classroom networks. And still others experience collective loneliness when they feel generally disconnected from society—like many people experienced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But not everyone is a social butterfly in search of hundreds of friends. Nevertheless, when people’s actual quantity and quality of social interaction dips below their desired level, they often feel lonely and may be motivated to do something about it. Perhaps lonely people reach out to potential friends or social networks more frequently than usual in hopes of connecting with others. Or, perhaps they withdraw from social interactions, choosing solitude or cutting short awkward conversations with strangers who might have been their future friends.

Using Smartphones to Detect Social Interaction

To understand whether loneliness predicts how frequently people interact with others or the duration of their interactions, the researchers conducted a study using data collected from people’s smartphones.

As part of the “Dartmouth StudentLife Study,” 48 participants first completed measures of their intimate, relational, and collective loneliness. Then, they downloaded an app on their phone that passively recorded their conversations with others over the next 10 weeks.

Whenever participants had a conversation with someone else, the app recorded when the conversation started and ended. Thus, providing the researchers with two important pieces of information: the rate of social interactions (how many conversations were detected) and duration of interaction (how long the conversations lasted).

Recorded interactions that weren’t truly conversations, like a classroom lecture or a television show in the background, were not included in the data. Interestingly, the app also recorded how frequently participants were on their phones, including whether a participant opened their phone at least an hour before chatting with someone else.

Does Loneliness Predict the Rate or Duration of Social Interaction?

Over the 10 weeks, the app recorded a total of 74,645 social interactions, which was equivalent to approximately 27 interactions per person every day. Participants’ interactions lasted, on average, about 10 minutes and occurred approximately every 45 minutes.

In general, lonely people tended to have fewer social interactions. Interactions were most common during the day, when people had interacted with someone else within 2 hours or 24 hours beforehand, or stayed off their phone for at least an hour before interacting with someone.

Interestingly, intimate and collective loneliness did not predict either the rate or the duration of social interaction.

However, relational loneliness did predict how long people interacted with others, such that the less connected people felt to their family, friend, or social networks, the shorter conversations they tended to have. In fact, the researchers reported people who scored at the higher ends of loneliness were 35 percent more likely to leave an interaction at any time.

Although this study extends previous findings which link loneliness to less time spent interacting with others, its findings may be difficult to generalize because data was only collected from a small sample of participants. Nevertheless, future research, particularly studies which use smartphone sensors to detect actual social interactions, may be useful for predicting changes in loneliness. Perhaps staying off one’s phone and having more frequent and longer conversations with others might decrease people’s feelings of loneliness over time.

References

Elmer, T. & Lodder, G. (2022). Modeling social interaction dynamics measured with smartphone sensors: An ambulatory assessment study on social interactions and loneliness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Available online first, August 2022. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221123096

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