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Loneliness

Is Loneliness a Side Effect of the Digital Social World?

Some are left behind and lonely by social media. Time to meet in person again!

Key points

  • Social isolation and loneliness are increasing in the new digital age, especially with the lack of in-person contact during the pandemic.
  • Those less adept at socializing online are at a disadvantage, and teaching them to use social media may help reduce loneliness.
  • If we nurture our connections, when we unplug from the grid, our friends will be there to meet in person.
 Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Confusing technology and feeling isolated?
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Recently this blog explored the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic induced social distancing, leading to a loss of in-person contacts in the new, digitized world of video calls and online meetings. Is the digital wave dehumanizing us? And is this shift inspiring new behaviors that make us more distracted, more impatient, less safe, and less healthy?

The digital world we’ve created has made us less patient. The type A’s among us expect instant responses and lightning-fast results. We want it now! (Or at least overnight.) We expect answers to questions with just a quick search. Some of us may have even lost our abilities to use a library, research a topic, or even remember a phone number!

We spend hours a day on our screens. Perhaps life passes some of us by while we are absorbed by our devices? Blue light from our gadgets interrupts our sleep rhythms. Our identities are at risk of being hacked, with added worries about malware and cybercrime. No wonder we need apps to help us relax! Clearly, there is a downside to living in a technological world.

My concern is that lack of in-person contact results in feeling separated when your social life is mostly digital. People with hundreds of Facebook friends still experience loneliness and isolation. Those who grew up with digital technology may feel comfortable socializing online, but others who grew up in the analog world are less adept and find themselves at a disadvantage with online platforms.

Social media may not be good for everyone, so many are left behind by the expanding digital domain. This divide may be somewhat generational, but we cannot ignore the possibility that the explosion of digital communications is bringing with it a type of isolation that has a negative impact on many. One UK study suggested that, in this digital age, as many as 1 in 10 individuals experience loneliness. (1)

Technology can inadvertently create problems but may also offer new solutions. For example, a study of 600 older adults by Michigan State University found that social technology use (email, text messages, social media, online video conferencing) was linked to lower levels of loneliness. Researchers are thus designing new applications aimed at easing loneliness among older adults. (2)

How can we help those left behind in the digital social world? We can better introduce new users to technology, educate isolated individuals on how to use digital communications, and work harder to welcome them into our digital social world. Technology alone cannot fix this issue of social isolation and loneliness. We must reach out and nurture our human connections as well.

Please don’t get me wrong; I am no Luddite! I love technology, and I’m not about to give up my screen time! Overall, a cost-to-benefits analysis clearly shows that technology has made life better. Technology allows us instant access to a vast universe of information, allows us to save lives, jet around the globe, and even land rovers on Mars!

But since we live here on Earth, let's remember that “home” is about our mutual human connections. Feelings of belonging, interpersonal bonds, and invisible threads of love are what bind us together. Let’s use technology to optimize communication, yet not lose our personal human connections to an encroaching digital landscape.

When you unplug from the grid... will friends still be there to meet in person?

References

(1) UK Study on loneliness in the new digital age (https://www.bath.ac.uk/projects/loneliness-in-the-digital-age/) See also Social isolation and loneliness as public health issues. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hpb20200622.253235/full/

Loneliness Linked to Serious Health Conditions- CDC https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html

(2) Chopik, W. J. (2016). The benefits of social technology use among older adults are mediated by reduced loneliness. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19, 551-556. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2016.0151

Baecker, Ron and Sellen, Kate and Crosskey, Sarah and Boscart, Veronique and Barbosa Neves, Barbara (2014) Technology to reduce social isolation and loneliness. In: Proceedings of the 16th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Compute rs & Accessibility. Available at http://openre s e a r c h.oc ad u.c a/id/eprint/1004/ http://openresearch.ocadu.ca/id/eprint/1004/1/Sellen_Tech_2014.pdf

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