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Loneliness

The Relationship Between Loneliness and Screen Usage

Our social lives are essential to our psychological and emotional wellbeing.

Key points

  • Loneliness is derived from feelings of depression, lack of companionship, lack of meaningful and emotional expression, and a lack of support.
  • Social technologies used to escape the social world and withdraw from social anxiety escalate feelings of loneliness.
  • Online socialising may increase the experience of loneliness as these connections are often shallow and fragile.
  • When one is socially isolated and socially deprived, the emotional support necessary to sustain one’s personal health is absent

One complication in defining loneliness is that a person may be socially isolated but not lonely, or socially connected yet feels lonely (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019). Loneliness is primarily derived from feelings of depression, a lack of companionship, a lack of meaningful and emotional expression, and a lack of support.

In the Harvard Business Review, researchers reported various impacts of loneliness on psychological and physical health, and one’s longevity (June 29, 2017). Their findings are shocking. They report obesity was found to reduce longevity by 20%, drinking 30%, smoking 50%, and loneliness by 70%. Also reported is that loneliness increases one’s chance of stroke and coronary heart disease (the leading cause of death in developed countries) by 30%. The risk of premature death associated with social isolation and loneliness is similar to the risk of premature death associated with well-known risk factors such as obesity, based on a meta-analysis of research in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia (Holt-Lunstad, et al., 2015).

When the internet is used as a way-station on the route to enhancing existing relationships and forging new social connections it is a useful tool for reducing loneliness. But when social technologies are used to escape the social world and withdraw from the social anxiety associated with interaction, feelings of loneliness escalate. Loneliness is also a determinant of how people interact within the digital world. Lonely people express a preference for using the internet for social interaction and are therefore more likely to use the internet in a way that displaces time spent offline (ie. face-to-face and social activities) (Nowland, Necka, & Cacioppo, 2018).

Ruder (2019) states: “Digital devices (screens implied) can interfere with everything from sleep to creativity.” Between 2000-2015, the number of teens who got together with their friends everyday dropped by more than 40%; and this drop has gained momentum in recent years (Twenge, 2017). “It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time hanging out.”

In 2021, face-to-face has been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the World Wide Web. Taylor (2011) suggests: “…real life, and much of the meaning and satisfaction accrued from it, comes from our relationships with others. The development of our social lives is essential for our psychological and emotional wellbeing. Yes, social media (platforms) are obviously social in nature, but I see it as being "social lite," because it limits the richness of human interactions, or "social safe" because it keeps relationships at a comfortable distance.”

With an increase in screen-based connection, Nalwa (2004) identified individuals as either dependent or independent of pathological internet use via the Davis Online Cognition Scale and the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, 1996). Significant behavioural and functional differences were found between the two groups. The dependents delayed work to spend time online, lost sleep, and said life was boring without the internet. This resulted in the dependents spending more hours on the internet than independents. In regards to feeling lonely, dependents scored higher on the loneliness measure than the independents.

Morahan and Schumacher (2000) in Computers in Human Behavior also examined pathological internet use among university students. They too applied the UCLA Loneliness Scale and found that pathological internet use among university students significantly increased their score on the Loneliness Scale; and, they were found to be socially disinhibited online. Sharabi, Sade, and Margalit (2016) studied university students both with and without a learning disability. Through multiple regression analyses, they found that the use of the internet for avoidance-coping behaviour was a significant predictor for loneliness for both populations.

Online socialising may increase the experience of loneliness due to these online connections being typically shallow and fragile. A lack of quality in the relationships rather than the mere quantity of relationships appears to be the issue with online connections contributing to loneliness. We know that social relationships have short-term and long-term effects on mental and physical health. When one is socially isolated and socially deprived, the emotional support necessary to sustain one’s personal health is not present (Umberson & Montez, 2010.)

References

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019). Social Isolation and loneliness, 11/09/2019.

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith T, Baker M, Harris T & Stephenson D 2015. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10:227–37.

Morahan-Martin, J., & Schumacher, P. (2000). Incidence and correlates of pathological internet use among college students. Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 16, Issue 1, 31 January 2000.

Nalwa, K. & Preet-Anand, A. (2004). Internet addiction in students: A cause of concern. CyberPsychology & Behavior, Vol. 6, No. 6.

Nowland, R., Necka, E.A., Cacioppo, J.T. (2018). Loneliness and social internet use: Pathways to reconnection in a digital world? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), pp. 70-87.

Ruder, D.B. (2019). Screen time and the brain. Harvard Medical School News and Research, June 19, 2019.

Russell, D. (1996). UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3): Reliability, validity, and factor structure. Journal of Personality Assessment, 66, 20-40.

Seppala, E. & King, M. (2017). Burnout at work isn’t just about exhaustion. It’s also about loneliness. Harvard Business Review June 29, 2017.

Sharabi, A., Sade, S., & Margalit, M. (2016). Virtual connections, personal resources, loneliness and academic self-efficacy among college students with and without LD. European Journal of Social Needs Education, Vol.31, Issue 3.

Taylor, J. (2011). Technology: Virtual vs. Real Life: You choose. Psychology Today, May 31, 2011.

Twenge, J.M. (2017). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic, September 2017 Issue.

Umberson, D., & Montez, J.K. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, October 8, 2010, 51, 54-66.

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