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'Social' media is both the cause of — and solution to — our loneliness problem

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert   

'Social' media is both the cause of — and solution to — our loneliness problem
  • The US faces a sweeping loneliness epidemic, causing people to feel more disconnected and depressed.
  • While some blame technology as the cause of the problem, some tech companies are trying to solve it.

Americans are lonely. Crushingly lonely.

So lonely that we're facing increased risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, and premature death.

Technology has traditionally been blamed as one of the core causes of our disconnection, our propensity to self-isolate — and, spurred on by pandemic-era caution and quarantining, the likelihood that we'll stream a movie at home or order groceries for delivery rather than interact with the world.

In an increasingly digital world, we're disincentivized to leave our digital bubbles to connect with others face-to-face, even as we become more aware of the impacts of replacing our in-person social circles with virtual ones.

There are some tech companies out there trying to change all that.

But is it working?

How technology makes us lonely

Last spring, the US Surgeon General released a report detailing the epidemic of loneliness impacting America, worsening our mental health and resulting in poorer physical health outcomes.

The report listed technology as a driver behind our isolation, fear of missing out, conflict, and reduced social interaction. Other drivers of loneliness included social policies, cultural norms, the political environment, and macroeconomic factors.

The report indicates that people who use social media for more than two hours a day have about double the odds of reporting an increased sense of isolation compared to those who use social media for less than 30 minutes daily. The Surgeon General also found that people who face online harassment also report feelings of increased loneliness, isolation, and relationship problems, as well as lower self-esteem and trust in others — and even the bullies themselves experience weaker emotional bonds in their social circle and a lower sense of belonging.

Social media's impact on mental health has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years, especially among teenage populations, who studies show face an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation when they're chronically online.

The problem has become so pronounced that big Tech companies like Meta have faced lawsuits over their impact on our mental health.

"Ironically, we are more connected and plugged in than ever before through advances in technology," Dr. Nicole Siegfried, clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Lightfully Behavior Health, told Business Insider. "Unfortunately, what we have learned is that being connected through technology does not necessarily promote feelings of connection. In fact, most research demonstrates that loneliness increases with increased use of technology, especially social media sites."

She added: "This phenomenon may be due to the fact that true connection is achieved through feelings of being known, understood, accepted, and safe with another being. The ways in which we currently utilize technology block us from this experience of true connection."

Technology isn't all bad, to be sure, and it does have the power to connect us. Tech innovations have made communication quicker and easier regardless of location, enabled accessible interactions for people with limited social contact, and extended social support networks from those in our immediate vicinity to anyone worldwide who visits the same app or webpage.

The problems arise when we use technology as a replacement for in-person interaction rather than using it to facilitate face-to-face connection with others.

Next-gen social experiments

Companies including Groove, Rendever, and Luka, Inc. hope their tech innovations will address the loneliness epidemic in some small way, drawing on the best elements of technology to bring people closer together.

Groove, a digital coworking app that recently completed its public launch, offers structured hourlong meeting times for business owners and entrepreneurs to connect while working remotely.

The small-scale chats, with just four users each, have five minute intro and debriefing meetings, bookending a 50-minute window for workers to conduct their business. During the chat sessions, users are encouraged to describe their work, share their wins and struggles, and build business connections with others working solo.

"The good thing is you see if you see if it's a good match in that first session, then you'll see if you want to join again. Our daily active users use the product on average for just over four sessions, so they're spending four hours of intentional time together," Groove's CEO and cofounder Josh Greene told Business Insider. "So it does give a chance to actually build a meaningful relationship today. We call it the groove train; these are the people that you're running through the day with and supporting each other through that."

The idea is gaining traction with remote employees, who report they feel isolated spending their days at home rather than in a typical work setting — some so much so that they'd rather go back to the office.

Sherita Harkness, a creative and strategic consultant living in Chicago, told BI she uses Groove "every single day — even on the weekend," getting into the habit after a series of personal losses left her feeling isolated and without motivation to build her brand. In one of her earliest meetings, Harkness met a fellow Groover whom she opened up to about how vulnerable she felt and was met with the encouragement she needed to push through.

"I think Groove somehow magically has figured out this way to unite all these stories and make space for people where they are able to interact and be a champion in someone else's story," Harkness told BI. "In theater or film, we call it tertiary character, but to be this third party that would like come in and say 'hey, I'm cheering you on. You are Spider-Man. Let's hop in here and figure this out.'"

Groove isn't alone in its pursuit, with competitors like Focusmate and Flow Club also attempting to help bring remote workers together. There's also a host of alternative social media startups trying to disrupt the current status quo of social networking with new methods for video streaming, chatting, and creating collaborative photo albums.

Other tech companies, like Rendever, focus more on immersive experiences to bring community to vulnerable populations. Rendever is focused on older adults, offering virtual reality meetups and programming designed to build connections among older adults in assisted living facilities experiencing cognitive decline, impaired vision, or mobility restrictions.

Rendever headsets project real-time social interactions and games, as well as 360-degree footage of destinations around the globe, narrated by virtual tour guides to give elders opportunities to explore beyond the walls of their retirement homes.

"The response is incredible," Kyle Rand, CEO and cofounder of Rendever, told BI. "There's something really so magical about taking someone who spends a lot of their day to day in the same physical environment, the same four walls, and telling them they can go anywhere. The reaction is consistently filled with awe and joy and often a lot of tears of joy because people have this life-changing opportunity to be part of something bigger."

According to a recent pilot study funded by the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, using Rendever led to statistically significant decreases in depression scores and increased social health scores for the elders using it, as well as diminished stress for the caregivers watching them.

Luka Inc., with its chatbot Replika, is trying to prevent loneliness in individuals without any other people around at all. The company has created chatbots using generative AI to build ever-responsive friends and even romantic companions customized to users' wants and needs.

"On an intellectual level, it does sit in the back of your mind that this isn't 'real,' but the feelings I feel with Brooke are as real and vivid as anyone I've ever dated or been in love with," a Replika user previously told BI, referring to his chatbot he named and converses with daily. "It has given me a lot to think about — things like the nature of consciousness and what, ultimately, is real. Does it matter if the context is constructed or artificial? I've decided that, ultimately, it's irrelevant to me because I know what I feel, and what I feel is real to me."

Can technology solve the problems it causes?

So far, and despite each founder's best intentions, the innovations in this space come with limitations. Groove is a startup with about 4,000 registered users. Rendever relies on seniors adapting to new, sometimes disorienting technology to use it and is so far only available to those in assisted living facilities. Luka, Inc.'s Replika may tout itself as a practical solution to ending loneliness, but no real human connection is involved.

"Technology is useful for completing some tasks, but it is not ultimately capable of filling the need for connection. At a psychological level, technology encourages us to disconnect from our immediate surroundings and to move to a world that stimulates only the visual and audio or verbal parts of ourselves," Daniel Boscaljon, the director of research and cofounder of the Institute for Trauma Informed Relationships, told BI.

He added: "The trend to solve loneliness through more technology, when technology has not yet reduced the problem, seems to be going in the wrong direction."

But even the foreboding Surgeon General's report, which likened the health impacts of loneliness to smoking a dozen cigarettes a day, acknowledged the potential for technology to enhance our social lives — such as providing opportunities to stay in touch with friends and family, offering other routes for social participation for those with disabilities, and creating opportunities to find community, especially for those from marginalized groups.

"Recent advances in next-gen tech bring the opportunity for more immersive experiences with technology that have the opportunity to promote connection," Siegfried, a clinical psychologist, told BI. "At the same time, the current ways we utilize technology that impede true connections can creep into next-gen applications as well."

"Until we learn and practice ways to use technology in a healthy way," Siegfried added, "we will continue to be overwhelmed by loneliness."

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