Technology and Loneliness: Designing for Real Social Connection

The power of technology should be harnessed to help humans flourish, not to hide behind screens and bring about record levels of loneliness. It’s time to get deliberate about the technology we create and consume. According to research, our lives depend on it.

In the last ten years, smartphones, social media, and online media have become ever-present, changing the way we interact with the world and each other. The average American now spends more than 10 hours a day consuming media, with smartphone usage higher than ever before (Howard, 2016). Even children under the age of eight spend more than two hours every day engaged in online media, with mobile device representing about a third of total screen time (Rideout, 2017). How we spend our finite time in a given day deserves deliberate reflection – spending more time in front of screens definitionally means we’re spending less time elsewhere.

How does this impact our social relationships, and does it matter? The wide-array of well-being benefits derived from social connection has been well documented in psychology. At the highest level, close social relationships are strongly associated with health and well-being, while isolation is associated with an increased likelihood of mortality (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). To put the physical risk of loneliness in perspective, research suggests that social isolation has comparable effects on mortality rates to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and obesity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). To put it simply, research shows us what we already know: humans have an innate need for love and connection (Haidt, 2006). So yes, it matters.

When comparing those who report being lonelier to those who are less lonely, clear trends begin to emerge (Cigna, 2018). Unsurprisingly, lonelier people are much less likely to have frequent in-person interactions, dealing with inadequate social skills and relationship statuses. According to Sherry Turkle (2016) in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, those who use social media have the most difficulty reading human emotions, including their own. Conversely, real-life conversations lead to greater self-esteem and improved ability to deal with others. Additional research supports this idea, demonstrating that online life is associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection. As technology and media companies get better at commandeering peoples’ finite attention, typically in line with internal goals to increase time spent on site and advertising revenue, real life social connections are taking a hit. The result? A combination of diminishing well-being, declining capacity for empathy and reflection, and deteriorating social connection (Turkle, 2016).

But what about technology designed to improve well-being? I’m not talking about unique, deliberate approaches to use Facebook in ways that result in increased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015), but technology intentionally designed to increase well-being. There are a few companies out there paving the way, including Headspace (teaching how to mediate and live mindfully), Happify (using evidence-based solutions to improve well-being), DIY (helping kids develop new skills), and Duolingo (using science-based strategies to teach new languages). Aren’t these the kinds of sites we should be dedicating our finite time to?

One company has decided to tackle the importance of social connection head on, using technology to get people off technology. Meetup, a platform designed to help people discover local gatherings (Meetups), encourages people to do the things they love with others. Unlike many recent technology products centered on online connection behind a screen, Meetup is focused exclusively on creating meaningful connections in real life. And it seems to be succeeding, creating a million hours of people connecting in real life every month. With smartphone dependence and social isolation on the rise, the importance of encouraging and facilitating real social connection is more important than ever before. The power of technology should be harnessed to help humans flourish, not to hide behind screens and bring about record levels of loneliness. It’s time to get deliberate about the technology we create and consume. According to research, our lives depend on it.

 

References

Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf

Gable, S. G. & Gosnell, C. L. (2011). The positive side of close relationships. In K. M. Sheldon, B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward,265-279. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., 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(2), 227-237.

Howard, J. (2016, Jul 29). Americans devote more than 10 hours a day to screen time, and growing. CNN. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/health/americans-  screen-time-nielsen/index.html

Rideout, V. (2017). The Common Sense census: Media use by kids age zero to eight. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media, 263-283.

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York, NY: Penguin.

Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., . . . Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480-488.

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