Loneliness has skyrocketed over the past few years. According to a recent Cigna study, over 3 in 5 Americans are lonely. “Yes, but why,” you may be asking. Is it our phones and devices, or other societal changes, such as increasing economic, political and social discord and division?
It’s Not Just Our Phones
It’s difficult to isolate only one cause of our loneliness. Based on research from the Pew Research Center and others, it’s distinctly possible that our increasingly digitally-mediated lifestyle is not only directly causing our loneliness but also indirectly making us lonelier, through fostering this divisiveness. Let’s take a deeper dive into whether one of the guilty culprits in our increasingly lonely lifestyles is our phones/devices.
I’ve spent the past ten years researching and teaching people about how to manage complex emotions such as loneliness and trauma. After interviewing hundreds of people from all walks of life and listening to their stories about what has precipitated the loneliest moments of their lives, I’m convinced that the recent increases in screen time and loneliness are inextricably linked.
The researchers found that the more time these individuals spent online, the less time they spent in person with family members and friends—and the lonelier and more depressed they became. Because Kraut and his colleagues surveyed these family members before they received daily access to a computer and the Internet, the research team was able to identify electronic communication as a cause of social isolation, depression, and loneliness.
Over two decades later, nothing has changed. Consider the experience of Hannah, the vice president of a technology company in San Francisco I interviewed last year for my book Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Agewho recounts how loneliness and time on her digital devices impacted her life after a recent breakup:
After a six-year relationship ended in 2016, I jumped into another relationship in 2017. Following the most recent breakup, I realized how much I have relied on others to feel happy. I have spent the last eight years of my life relying on someone else for fulfillment. Throughout these experiences, I made it a priority to display my relationships and outings online for others to see. I wanted others to see how happy I was. Scrolling through my Instagram feed has become a bad habit and quite unhealthy because I have the tendency to compare my life with the lives of others. People have never witnessed any authenticity or my true emotion of loneliness because I choose not to upload that part of my life. I choose not to upload when I am struggling emotionally, socially, or financially. This habit has only reinforced the fact that I utilize social media as a drug to temporarily cure my social isolation.
These interviews have convinced me that the reason we’re unable to cope with the dysfunctional nature of our lives is that the new technology-induced social norms we unwittingly conform to are dysfunctional. Our smartphone and screen use have propelled us down anunfulfilling path. We have been promised connection. Instead, we have ended up with loneliness and misery.
To turn this dynamic around, start using your phone as … a phone. Call the people you care about and share how you are each navigating these challenging times. Turn your video off periodically on Zoom calls—and encourage others to do the same to reshape the new videoconferencing norms—to reduce Zoom fatigue and increase your creativity. In all ways large and small, develop strategies personalized to the daily rhythm of your life so you can spend less time gazing at a screen and more time looking into the eyes of and communicating meaningfully with the people who matter to you.
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.