Presently, we are the most connected society. That was the great promise of the Internet, that—for better or worse—we would be connected to people worldwide, allowing us to stay connected with loved ones and expand our social networks.
Yet, in this era of digital connectivity, group chats, niche community forums, social media, and GRWMs, we are the most socially disconnected. For decades, social connection has declined, bringing about an “epidemic of loneliness” that not only impacts our physical and mental health (U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory) but weakens our communities.
Loneliness is a complex emotion. It’s ascribed to the physical state of being alone, but that’s not always the case. However, it’s “perceived social isolation” and a feeling of lacking quality or meaningful connections (Science Direct). So, someone can feel lonely despite having a large network of friends and family. And a person can be alone without feeling lonely. In contrast, social isolation is having limited social relationships or infrequent social contact with others.
About one in two U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with race, age, and income levels impacting how people experience loneliness—with younger adults, Black and Brown people, and low-income workers most affected (Cigna Group). Another study found that when asked how close they felt to others emotionally, only 39% said they felt very connected to others (Gallup). Social isolation and prolonged loneliness can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and dementia, raise the likelihood of premature death by 26%, and is akin to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
• Support organizations like REBUILD, Fireweed Collective, Black Girls Smile, Asian Mental Health Collective, Immigrants Rising, and We R Native, providing mental health services and education.
• Use peer support and crisis hotlines that are divested from the police, including Trans Lifeline, BlackLine, DeQH, and the LGBT National Help Center.
Loneliness is often associated with mental health issues and, as such, is stigmatized. This makes it easier to overlook the signs of loneliness and makes it harder to address or reach out. Though the pandemic didn’t cause the drop in social connection, it did help accelerate the decline, disrupting and further altering our social routines and networks.
“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy, following declaring loneliness a public health issue (Associated Press). “It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing.”
Social connection has been a “significant predictor of longevity and better physical, cognitive, and mental health,” increases survival rate by 50%, and is vital to the prosperity of our communities (U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory). Socially connected individuals and communities have been linked to “better community outcomes, ranging from public health to community safety,” reduced socioeconomic disparities, civic engagement, and communal support.
Still, social participation in personal relationships and communities is declining. In-person social engagement decreased from 60 minutes daily, or 30 hours/month, in 2003 to 10 hours a month by 2020. For ages 15 to 24, time spent with friends fell by nearly 70%. And 49% of adults in 2021 had three or fewer close friends, compared to the 27% who reported in 1990 (U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory).
Social media is routinely blamed for this “epidemic of loneliness,” replacing our intimate in-person encounters with countless impersonal digital ones that give the “illusion of real connection” (Scientific American). Studies have found that individuals with high social media usage showed signs of depression and feelings of isolation, largely in teens and young adults. But it’s harder to pinpoint whether the shift to digital spaces is the root cause of these sentiments or if social disconnection is pushing people online. Social media is another avenue to stay connected and even find people with shared interests we would otherwise not have in our day-to-day lives. Not to mention, with the decline in communal spaces and the amount of free time left after factoring in work, school, chores, and other responsibilities/obligations, the rise of social media usage, the watching of GRWM and daily life vlogs, and digital communication feel more like the result in our desire to fulfill our social need and connection in a world that no longer accommodates community.
Loneliness isn’t inherently bad. It’s a signal for us to reconnect with others. As social creatures, our need for connection and belonging is essential for our development, survival, and happiness (Scientific American). It’s why doctors and studies emphasize physical contact for babies and why solitary confinement is largely condemned. This visual essay by data journalist Alvin Chang does a great job of showcasing what 24 hours in this “invisible” loneliness epidemic looks like. So, instead of retreating and withdrawing from your community, friends, and beloved family members, lean into them. Join hobby clubs, volunteer, and deepen those connections with your support systems in a way that is meaningful and purposeful for you. Your happiness and well-being will thank you for it.
• We are currently in a loneliness epidemic.
• The social isolation that resulted from the pandemic exacerbated the mental health crisis.
• Lack of social connection and loneliness threaten our health and wellbeing, equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes daily.