Loneliness and Technology

There’s been several recent articles about loneliness lately, spurred at least in part by the UK’s recent creation of a Minister of Loneliness to help cope with what’s been called an “epidemic of loneliness.” There are a lot of reasons why the surge in both quantity and severity of loneliness is a bad thing (aside from the mental and emotional impacts, it ends up having physical ramifications as well), and while I’d say it’s too broad a topic to point specific fingers at the causes, I do think modern society certainly isn’t helping. It’s sort of telling that (pulled from the above Medium article):

Research on young people’s loneliness isn’t abundant. But what does exist suggests loneliness might not go away anytime soon as a health crisis: A UCLA Berkeley study published last year found that even though adults between 21 and 30 had larger social networks, they reported twice as many days spent feeling lonely or socially isolated than adults between 50 and 70.

In other words, the generation portrayed as savvy, socially connected people are actually feeling the most alone.

A good book to read on the subject of the role technology has in all these (and I do definitely think it has a role) is Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. When it first came out a few years ago, I didn’t want to agree with her, but as time goes on, I fall more in alignment with her observations. (Here’s her related Ted Talk, which gives a good summary of the problems we’re talking about.) A quote from the Ted Talk that seems particularly relevant (emphasis mine):

We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, “Why have things come to this?”

And I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m advocating becoming a Luddite or something. We live in an age of technology, and it’s unrealistic (and ill-advised) to imagine that’s going to change. But I do think we need to change our relationship with that technology. I think we need to foster and teach empathy and emotional intelligence, and help people work through the anxieties of trying to communicate with others and meeting new people.

I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about this subject (both loneliness in general, and our current social climate). I need to ponder some more about how best to express it.