Can Tech Cure Your Loneliness?

Illustrated by Elena Boils.
Last weekend my friend admitted that he often blanket-messages every girl in his phone book, in the hope of finding a last-minute date. “It’s the old ‘message every gal in my contacts list and hopefully find a date to cure my crippling loneliness’ trick. Oldest one in the book” he half-joked over WhatsApp.
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Depressing anecdote that epitomises modern life, or resourceful use of technology?
This guy is 28, outgoing and fun. Yet in the age of the internet – that great tool that’s ‘connected’ us all – he finds himself using a one-dimensional messaging application to solicit a date and cure his feelings of isolation.
I know from my peer group, from personal experience and from countless studies that he is not the only person with these feelings.
According to one of these studies, released in the US last week by scientists from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the more time a young adult spends on social media, the more likely they are to feel socially isolated. The tricky thing, as this study of 1,787 US adults between the ages of 19 and 32 highlights, is that exploring loneliness in young people is a bit of a chicken and egg situation.
"We do not yet know which came first – the social media use or the perceived social isolation," wrote senior author Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, Professor of Paediatrics at Pitt. "It's possible that young adults who initially felt socially isolated turned to social media. Or it could be that their increased use of social media somehow led to feeling isolated from the real world. It also could be a combination of both. But even if the social isolation came first, it did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in purportedly social situations."
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Michelle Kennedy is a tech founder with a track record of using technology to bring people together. She’s recently turned her attention to mothers. Michelle was integral to the launch of Bumble and her recent venture, Peanut, is an app for mums who’ve grown up using Instagram, Uber, Deliveroo – and expect more than just an online forum on which to connect with other mothers.
Michelle has seen first-hand how social networks are opening up conversations on previously untouched subjects. “People weren’t really talking about loneliness in millennials five years ago,” she tells Refinery29. “No one would have ever admitted it.”
It was during her tenure at Bumble that Michelle realised the potential of apps; not just to connect people but to challenge social norms. “Apps like Bumble have paved the way with social messaging,” she continues. “Women can make the first move; that’s incredible, that’s a social message that’s been pushed forward through a dating app.” Of course, before Bumble, there was Tinder: the app that made it totally normal and un-creepy to meet people online. It’s easy to forget how game-changing that was when it launched in 2012, because we’ve become accustomed to the idea so quickly.
And the social interaction that Tinder encouraged – albeit for often slightly less, ahem, long-term relationships – is worth £11.7 billion to the economy. Somewhere between the awkwardness of having to tell the grandparents where you met your new partner and the cringeworthy feelings those first few swipes on Tinder instilled in us, we fell for it all hook, line and sinker. So much so that apps like Peanut seem like the logical next step. Bumble has a BFF feature, you can date with friends on Tinder Social, and there’s a host of apps that help you connect with people for car lifts, running clubs and so on. Why not meet other parents at a time when you most need a group of empathetic people around you?
But as anyone who’s used dating apps will tell you, you can never guarantee that a two-week-long stream of instant messaging is going to turn into a real-life encounter. It’s the same with other forms of communication, too – using Skype to connect with people from a distance is lovely, if it means you get more face-time with your grandparents. Ultimately, though, there’s no substitute for IRL interaction, whether you’re speaking to someone you’ve known for 30 minutes or 30 years.
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Julia Bainbridge, the founder of hit podcast The Lonely Hour, is sceptical about the ways technology connects us. “It’s a Band-Aid solution,” she tells us over email. “We need to think about the root of this growing sense of loneliness we seem to be experiencing, and tackle it there.” The way Julia sees it, we’re clinging to digital interactions because something else is missing. “Skype and FaceTime and the like have been developed to reestablish connection,” she says, “because we live in a world in which much of it has been lost.”
Bainbridge cites the psychologists who warn that loneliness could be the next major health issue. Professor Sydney Engelberg, an Israeli psychology professor who became an internet sensation in 2015 for picking up his student’s crying baby during class, appears to be one of them. “There is an increasing body of research showing that communication and interaction via technology cannot substitute for meaningful face-to-face communication and interaction,” he says. “As a consequence we are finding reports of an epidemic of loneliness sweeping through the industrialised world.”
The Oxford English dictionary defines loneliness as "sadness because one has no friends or company." But really, that seems like a limited definition of a very overpowering feeling. I asked Julia how she defined it personally. “Alone-ness is a state of being alone; loneliness refers to the sadness over that state,” she said. “So I would say loneliness is most definitely a feeling and not a situation.”
Samantha Carbon is a UK-based psychotherapist who also questions the strength of online communication in overcoming feelings of loneliness. “A sense of community is not achieved when there is a lack of eye contact, body language and voice tone,” she says. “Technology such as Facebook or Twitter gives the illusion of friendship and intimacy, however the reality is many individuals are unsure of the nature of their connections or commitment to others and vice versa.”
And the greatest irony of experiencing extreme loneliness, as anyone who has felt its full force will tell you, is that it is an impossible feeling to talk about, even with those closest to you. “I found it really difficult to say that or to verbalise it,” offers Michelle, talking about the time when she was a new mother. “It’s kind of a conversation killer, right? It’s that weird thing where everyone looks and feels a bit panicked, and wonders if you have postnatal depression.” Then there’s the other ironic thing about feeling lonely; if it hits you when you are expected to be in the blissful period of motherhood, that only compounds the sense of isolation. “There’s a stigma attached to it, and I think I found that quite hard and quite challenging” continues Michelle, who even found it hard to tell her husband how she was feeling.
So why do we have all these ways to connect but still struggle to find those connections that stave off loneliness? Because until now, smartphones seem just to have reduced human relationships. A survey of smartphone users by Deloitte last year found that 31% make no traditional voice calls in a given week. This contrasts with a quarter in 2015, and just 4% in 2012. At some point we stopped using our phones to have conversations, and they became little windows into other people’s lives where we could watch, like and share without engaging with each other in real time.
But Peanut is a welcome sign that change is afoot, and the internet is finally growing up. Because it’s apps like this that encourage us to do more than just watch other people in some passive state of voyeurism. And instead, use technology to make proper, meaningful, real-life connections that may just keep that loneliness at bay.
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