Loneliness

More (Digitally) Connected, But Why Are We More Alone?

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Loneliness is the new epidemic in modern life.

Did you know, that in the UK, one in ten people often feel lonely and 48 per cent of people think we are getting lonelier in general? Recent research indicates that loneliness may be in fact, the next biggest public health issue on par with obesity and substance abuse.

Which begs the question, why are we getting lonelier?

Changes in modern society are largely to blame. We now live in nuclear family units, often at large distances away from our extended family and friends, and our growing reliance on social technology rather than face to face interaction is thought to be making us feel more isolated. It means we feel less connected to others and our relationships are becoming more superficial and less rewarding.

The largest culprit though, stems largely with the advent of smartphone technology. There is no doubt, that our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication. How often do you notice people surfing the web in meetings or getting distracted by their devices when you are talking to them face to face?

This is becoming problematic. The more we immerse ourselves in our digital personas and world the more we remove ourself from the real world. The trouble arises not just in how we relate to each other, but also in how we relate to ourselves, in our capacity for self-reflection. We are getting used to a new way of being “alone together”. On one hand, people want to be together but on the other hand, they also wish to be connected with other places.

I’ve noticed it myself. Many times have I been distracted with my smartphone when I’m trying to immerse myself in a meaningful conversation with someone.

Face-to-face relationships are being compromised. People have lost the art of how to have a conversation. One that takes place in real-time whereby you cannot control what you are going to say. Texting, emailing etc. lets us present ourselves as we want to be. We can edit, which means we get to delete, which means we get to retouch who we are. Human relationships are rich, messy and demanding and we clean them up with technology. We sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We shortchange ourselves and over time we seem to forget this and stop caring.

To learn about each other, we need to use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. Hence a flight from conversation will compromise our ability for self-reflection. People are getting so used to being shortchanged out of real conversation, that they are almost willing to be dispensed with people altogether.

My greatest fear is that technology is taking us to places we don’t want to go. In our increasingly “plugged in” lives, our little devices are so psychologically powerful that they don’t change what we do, but they fundamentally change who we are.

We expect more from technology, and less from each other. Why? Technology appears to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We are lonely, but afraid of intimacy. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But are we really so much in control?

It seems that people are afraid of being alone. We become anxious, fidget and reach for a device. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And people try solving it by connecting digitally. But here, connection is more of a symptom, than a cure. It expresses, but doesn’t solve an underlying problem. If we don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, we are setting ourselves up for isolation.