Loneliness in the Digital Age

February 2, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Do you feel lonely? Do you wish you had more deep social connections in your life?

If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. Loneliness and social isolation rates have steadily been increasing for decades, and we’re now experiencing what experts have termed a social isolation epidemic. Despite being constantly “connected” through digital technologies like social media, we’re more alone than ever.

The good news is there are ways we can combat this crisis to build healthy social lives.

Social isolation vs loneliness

First, let’s differentiate between two important terms we’ll use frequently in this article: social isolation and loneliness. Although these terms overlap in some ways, they have important differences.

Social isolation is the objective lack of social relationships or interactions. On the other hand, loneliness is the subjective experience of sadness and/or emotional distress due to perceived social isolation.

Although social isolation and loneliness often come together, that’s not necessarily the case. For example, some people with relatively few social interactions do not feel lonely. Others may have a lot of friends and loved ones in their lives but feel lonely regardless.

Are we lonelier than we used to be?

We hear a lot about how social media and other digital tools have led people worldwide to be more socially isolated than ever before. But are we truly lonelier than we used to be?

Research shows we are, especially in the United States.

Census Bureau surveys show Americans were spending less and less time with their friends and loved ones even before the pandemic forced us to stay home. In 2003, Americans spent an average of 285 minutes a day alone. By 2020, that number had jumped to 333 minutes a day – representing up to nearly 24 hours more alone time per month[1].

Over half of Americans reported feeling significantly lonely [2]. This is greater than the rate of people experiencing obesity or diabetes.

Around half of Americans also report having fewer than 3 close confidants. In 1990, that number was only 27%.

We’ve become lonelier and lonelier over the decades, especially in recent years. These numbers are causing many experts to state that our country faces a social isolation epidemic.

What is causing the social isolation epidemic?

We tend to blame things like cell phones and video games for the current lack of social connection that so many people are facing. But research shows rates of social connection have steadily declined since as early as the 1970s – long before cell phones appeared. So what’s going on?

Some experts point to an overall lack of time as one of the main culprits of loneliness, especially in the United States. People work long hours and may have less time to spend with loved ones. In modern times, having the ability to stay connected digitally may make it easier to simply forgo spending time with others.

We’re also less connected to our communities in general. In 2016, only 16% of people said they felt attached to the local community where they lived[1]. Fewer and fewer people report they trust other Americans, perhaps representing increasing political and cultural polarization.

Some other risk factors for social isolation on both an individual and societal level include:

  • Disability
  • Poverty
  • Being a racial or ethnic minority in the local community
  • Age (older adults and young adults are at highest risk)
  • Being a single parent
  • Living alone
  • Living in a rural or isolated area

The impacts of social media on social connection

Before blaming social media entirely for the current loneliness epidemic, it’s important to understand the complex relationship social media has on social connection and overall mental health.

Many studies have shown that people who use social media, especially extensively, are likelier to feel lonely. Social media can also have negative effects on self-esteem and body image and increase your risk for depression and anxiety.

But there may be some positives to social media use too. For example, social media may provide an avenue for young people to connect to communities of people with similar interests. This is especially important for teens who live in homogeneous local areas where they may be outcasted.

Ironically, people who use social media specifically to maintain social relationships are the most likely to feel lonely, according to research[3]. People who spend time on social media for other reasons may not be as negatively impacted.

Social media can also detract from true connection by distracting you even with face-to-face contact. For example, people who use their phones while spending time (in person) with a loved one may leave that interaction feeling less fulfilled. That may cause you to feel lonely even if you are technically spending time with others.

Like most everything in life, the impact social media has on your relational health has a lot to do with how and why you, personally, are using it.

Why does social connection matter?

Having strong social connections is one of the best things we can do for our overall health. Research has found that a lack of social connection increases your risk of premature death by 29% – as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day[1].

Both the lack of social connection and a feeling of loneliness can also raise your risk of several specific health conditions, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Respiratory illness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Viruses

Social connection can also be essential in providing you with necessary support during trying times. For example, if you fall ill, you’ll likely fare much better emotionally if you have a strong network of people around you offering support. The same goes for any stressful life event.

How do we measure social connection?

Introverts, fear not: You don’t need to have dozens of friends to be socially connected. Social connection is determined by quality, not quantity. In other words, how close you feel to the people in your life is much more important than how many people you know.

On top of that, social connection and loneliness both come on a continuum. It isn’t that you’re lonely or not; you have a healthy social life, or you don’t. We all fall somewhere along the spectrum, and our goal should be to experience a level of social connectedness that makes us feel good, not to “pass” the social connection “test.”

If you aren’t sure about whether you have a strong social network in your life, try asking yourself the following:

  1. How often do I communicate or spend time with my friends, family, or close acquaintances?
  2. Do I feel comfortable contacting them when I need support or company?
  3. Do I have a few close relationships where I can share my deepest thoughts and feelings?
  4. Are my interactions meaningful and enriching, or do they remain superficial?
  5. Can I be myself and express my thoughts and feelings around these individuals?
  6. Do I feel a sense of trust, understanding, and acceptance in these relationships?
  7. Do these relationships contribute positively to my overall sense of happiness and well-being?
  8. Are there open lines of communication and a willingness to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings?
  9. Do I receive emotional support and encouragement from these connections during challenging times?
  10. Can I celebrate my successes and achievements with these individuals without fear of jealousy or resentment?
  11. Are these connections a source of laughter, joy, and belonging?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, you likely have a strong source of social support in your life.

How to strengthen your social relationships

Luckily, there are steps each of us can take to strengthen our relationships, develop a deep and meaningful social network, and feel less lonely.

Tap into your local community

The invention of social media has made it possible to connect with anyone around the world. But sometimes, it’s best to start with the local community around you. This could look different for everyone – for some, a community might be a local church group while others might be fellow residents in an apartment building.

Connect 1:1

Sometimes it’s tempting to keep in touch with friends through group chats or shared social media posts. However, research shows people who primarily use social media as an avenue to keep in touch with others are the most likely to be lonely. Instead, make sure to connect 1:1 with the people you love. Call them for a chat or schedule a time to meet.

Express your gratitude

If you have meaningful social relationships, make sure you’re regularly expressing appreciation for them. Tell your friends and loved ones how much they mean to you. Talk to them about the difference they’ve made in your life. Offer to support them in the same ways that they’ve supported you.

Seek support

If you’re having trouble making close friendships in your life, or if you feel chronically lonely despite having loved ones around you, you may benefit from holistic mental health treatment.

This doesn’t mean you are flawed or lacking in any way – rather, a mental health therapist can help you uncover patterns that may be holding you back from being connected and work together with you to learn new ways of relating to others.

Social connection is a basic human need as much as food and shelter. At The Center • A Place of HOPE, your mental health treatment isn’t just about addressing individual symptoms. We address the physical, emotional, relational (social), and spiritual aspects of your well-being and help you emerge as your truest, best self.

Contact us today to learn how we can help you and your family.

1 – https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf
2 – https://www.npr.org/2023/05/02/1173418268/loneliness-connection-mental-health-dementia-surgeon-general
3 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9817115/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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