Loneliness and Technology - Cause or Solution?

The relationship between loneliness and technology is complicated.  Arguments have been made that technology is both the cause of, and the answer to loneliness

Our increasing use of social media has been blamed for a reduction in face to face interaction, especially in the media (1).  But what is the evidence?  As with all things, the answer is more subtle than simply labelling technology as the problem or the solution.

The term ‘technology’ covers a diverse range of products,services and concepts.  The Campaign to End Loneliness highlighted some of the ways technology can be used to combat loneliness (2) including its use for reminiscence.  Typically, when used in the context of loneliness and social isolation people think of technology such as social media platforms and digital communication.

Do using these platforms help alleviate loneliness?  There is evidence that among young adults,decreasing the time spent on social media can actually reduce feelings of loneliness (3)

This is ironic as we are told social media is supposed to make us feel more connected.  For younger people, increased use of social media may also be associated with increased distractibility and sleep disturbance (4).  The reasons for this may be related to a both a fear of missing out on events and of envy, where individuals may feel less successful, happy or adventurous when comparing their own lives to those portrayed on social media.  Online abuse is also an increasing cause of loneliness and isolation, with 34% of 12-17 year-olds saying they have experienced cyber bullying (5).

It is therefore understandable that there may be negative feelings towards the use of technology to alleviate loneliness and social isolation for older people

However,the evidence is that technology can be highly beneficial when it is used to make meaningful social connections (6).  Connection promoting behaviour (sharing updates with family, messaging friends who live too far away to see regularly) has been shown to decrease loneliness, whereas non-connection promoting behaviour (‘social snacking’, looking at other’s profiles without commenting) increases loneliness.

The relationship between physical health and loneliness is well established

For example, a study of 591 older people showed that higher social technology use was associated with better self-rated health, fewer chronic illnesses, higher subjective well-being and fewer depressive symptoms (7). Each physical and psychological benefit was found to be a result of reduced loneliness. Furthermore, this study also found that older people had a generally positive attitude towards technology, a subject previously covered in these articles.

The way in which technology is used is the key

Technology is a tool like any other; what unique value can it contribute to a person’s well-being?  At Link-Ages, we believe that technology should be used to augment connections and relationships.  Substituting online relationships for real relationships will not help to reduce loneliness and may actually increase social isolation.  However, appropriate use of the correct technology can increase the frequency of connection between older people and family, allowing connections that might not otherwise be possible due to geographic distance or time constraints.  In turn, this will lead to reduced loneliness and the associated physical and psychological benefits.  

While technology alone is not the solution to loneliness,there is a significant role for it to play in helping to tackle this widespread problem.

 

1. Routledge P. Loneliness in Britain is the legacy of social media and our high tech lives.

Mirror Online

2. Understanding Loneliness:is technology a bug or a fix?

Campaign to End Loneliness

3. Hunt MG, Marx R, Lipson C,Young J. NO MORE FOMO: LIMITING SOCIAL MEDIA DECREASES LONELINESS AND DEPRESSION. Vol 37.; 2018.

4. Ali S. Is Social Media Making You Lonely?

Psychology Today

5. Nationwide teen bullying and cyberbullying study reveals significant issues impacting youth.

ScienceDaily

6. Clark JL, Algoe SB, GreenMC. Social Network Sites and Well-Being: The Role of Social Connection. CurrDir Psychol Sci. 2018;27(1):32-37. doi:10.1177/0963721417730833

7. Chopik WJ. The Benefits of Social Technology Use Among Older Adults Are Mediated by Reduced Loneliness. CYBERPSYCHOLOGY,Behav Soc Netw. 2016;19(9). doi:10.1089/cyber.2016.0151

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