Is technology too isolating?Mar 16, 2023
Nurturing fulfilling experiences in the offline world can lead to some of the truest connections.
Updated by Sophia Ruan Gushée
As we recover from a pandemic that created a global lockdown, the answer to the question of, Is technology too isolating?, may seem silly. After all, while in lockdown, technology provided invaluable connections.
But, there are two main types of isolation: physical isolation and emotional isolation.
When millions or billions of people were in physical isolation during the covid-19 pandemic, technology provided emotional rafts and bridges that saved countless lives—literally, psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes spiritually.
Excluding extraordinary circumstances, however, it’s worthwhile to consider, Is technology isolating?
This article explores whether technology causes social isolation, or, loneliness.
Technology connects us like never before
With more than 63% of the world’s population (which is +5 billion people), using the Internet, we are interconnected like never before. And with 59% of the global population (or 4.7 billion people) using social media, it’s reasonable to assume that technology has led us to feel happier and more connected than ever. (Statista, 2022)
Despite being more connected through technology, we are lonely
A survey conducted in 2018 (before the Covid-19 pandemic) by the health insurer Cigna (Cigna 2018), using one of the best-known tools for measuring loneliness—the UCLA Loneliness Scale, found that "half of Americans view themselves as lonely," according to David Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna Corp. NPR’s 2018 article titled “Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden” reported the younger generation to be lonelier than the older generations," according to Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna.
Cigna 2018 found that most people (54 %) reported that they “always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well”—with 56% reporting that “they sometimes or always felt like the people around them "are not necessarily with them." Consistent with these results, 2 in 5 felt “that their "relationships aren't meaningful" and that they "are isolated from others."
So, what are the contributing factors to feeling social isolation? Is isolation caused by technology? Does technology make us more alone?
Loneliness was becoming prevalent even before the 2020 pandemic
To explore whether technology causes social isolation, I needed to learn more about loneliness: its prevalence, trends, and contributing factors.
Cigna released findings in January 2020 from a 2019 survey of approximately 10,000 adults (Cigna 2019). It found that loneliness had become more common.
A January 2020 article titled “Most Americans Are Lonely, And Our Workplace Culture May Not Be Helping” (Renken 2020) reported that Cigna 2019 found a 13% increase in loneliness since its 2018 survey—and that more men (63%) than women (58%) reported feeling lonely. Again, this data was collected before the March 2020 pandemic.
Loneliness is an epidemic
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic deepened and increased feelings of isolation. According to a February 2021 article “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It” (Harvard 2021), a report by the same name in association with the Harvard Graduate School of Education states:
Alarming numbers of Americans are lonely. According to our recent national survey of approximately 950 Americans, 36% of respondents reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the prior four weeks. A startling 61% of young people aged 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children reported these miserable degrees of loneliness. Survey respondents also reported substantial increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.
A December 2021 Cigna survey (Cigna 2021) on loneliness found that 58% of U.S. adults are considered lonely, which was fairly consistent with pre-pandemic research that “showed 61% of adults experiencing loneliness in 2019, after a seven percentage point increase from 2018.”
The Cigna 2021 survey revealed more nuances to those feeling lonely. Those with lower incomes or those in underrepresented racial groups are more likely to feel lonely.
- 75% of Hispanic adults and 68% of Black/African American adults are classified as lonely—higher than 58% among the total adult population.
- 63% of those earning less than $50,000 per year are classified as lonely, which is 10 points higher than those earning $50,000 or more.
What causes loneliness?
There are many factors that contribute to feelings of loneliness or social isolation. However, does technology make us more alone?
In a nutshell, it depends on its role in one’s life.
For example, quality in-person experiences are essential to keeping feelings of loneliness and social isolation to a minimum. So, having fewer remote learning and work meetings for more in-person meetings can help minimize feelings of social isolation and loneliness. One report “found that conditions in the workplace made a difference in how lonely people felt… When colleagues felt like they shared goals, average loneliness scores dropped almost eight points,” according to the January 2020 NPR article.
Naturally, many also wonder if there’s growth in isolation because of technology, specifically, social media.
Does social media help us feel more or less alone?
While social media connects us like never before, it can also increase feelings of being left out, anxiety, depression, and social isolation—sometimes greatly exacerbating feelings of disconnection from each other and the "real world." According to the 2020 NPR article, social media use was associated with loneliness: “with 73% of very heavy social media users considered lonely, as compared with 52% of light users.” However, it’s hard to know whether heavy social media use attracts more lonely people, or whether heavy social media use causes loneliness by increasing feelings of being left out of experiences that are posted online or feeling more depression from various types of comparisons.
Research has found that the effects of social media use on loneliness vary by age group. A July-September 2021 article, “Loneliness and Its Association With Social Media Use During the COVID-19 Outbreak” in the journal Social Media + Society reported lower social loneliness among the middle-aged and old participants and increased emotional loneliness among the younger participants. So, while younger people may be better off with more offline experiences, well-being among people in the older age group may be enhanced by social media use.
Is technology too isolating for kids?
Parents are increasingly concerned about children feeling depressed, low self-esteem, or social isolation due to technology, wondering, Is technology too isolating? After all, research is consistently reminding us of the prevalence of loneliness, especially among the younger population.
Renken 2020 reported that “Gen Z — people who were 18 to 22 years old when surveyed — had the highest average loneliness score on the 80-point scale (about 50), and boomers had the lowest (about 43).”
Later, Harvard 2021 reported consistent findings.
Contrary to popular belief, several studies, including ours, suggest that young people are far more likely to be lonely than the general population of adults and that loneliness subsides as people move through middle age…
Sixty-one percent of young adults in our survey reported feeling serious loneliness in the prior month, compared to 24% of survey respondents aged 55-65. Forty-three percent of young people reported increases in loneliness since the pandemic. A recent CDC online survey indicates that young people are also more likely to suffer mental health problems during the pandemic than any age group. According to this survey, an alarming 63% of young people are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression (see here).
And Cigna 2021 found that younger adults were more than twice as likely as older adults to feel left out.
- 42% of those aged 18 to 34 reported “always” feeling “left out,” compared to just 16% of people aged 55 or older who say the same.
- 79% of adults aged 18 to 24 report feeling lonely compared to 41% of seniors aged 66 and older.
The consistent conclusions are sobering.
Does technology cause isolation in teens and college-aged kids?
Kids that already feel socially isolated may be more attracted to social media use, while also being more emotionally vulnerable to the risks. Parents and other loved ones should monitor this because an unbalanced portion of time online may contribute to:
- Higher mortality rates. According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality…”
- Distractions. Notifications and phone calls divert attention from homework, face-to-face interactions, and even alone time.
- Social comparison. A 2021 report titled “Association Between Social Media Use and Self-reported Symptoms of Depression in US Adults” found that certain social media use worsened depression. The paper’s lead author is Roy Perlis, a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University.
- Lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem. Research has been showing that technology use, especially in the evening, can contribute to depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.
- Poorer academic performance. Studies have found that unbalanced time on social media and insufficient sleep or sleep disruption contributes to poorer academic performance.
So, does technology cause social isolation? Common Sense Media reports that using technology in the ways below contributes to teens feeling isolation due to technology.
- Tuning out. Navigating the world while wearing earphones, isolates them from the sounds and conversations around them.
- Replacing too many face-to-face interactions with digital screen time. Common Sense Media reported that over 50% of teens feel addicted to their cell phones. They prefer communicating via text, which allows for fast and immediate messaging but decreases direct (face-to-face, or on the phone) interactions.
- Not talking to the person sitting next to them as often since they are online. Research has shown that verbal conversations and face-to-face communications decrease stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Connecting with others through social media is not as rewarding.
- Creating fabricated online personas, and operating as them.
- Learning less about the challenges of, and rewards from, human relationships.
As you can begin to see, feeling social isolation is complex and the contributing factors are multifactorial. The above examples highlight some ways in which technology leads children to become disconnected from "real life" and feel social isolation due to technology.
Technology—through emails, texts, and social media engagement—can help us connect with peers, family, and classmates; and is enjoyed for entertainment and research. However, feeling genuinely connected to others and to a community, a tribe, requires face-to-face interactions, and in-person experiences that can’t be beaten.
The prevalence of those feeling social isolation and loneliness are at all-time highs—and among all age groups. In answering the question of Is technology too isolating?, you should recognize the multifactorial approaches to protecting against social isolation and managing technology use mindfully. Technology use, including social media, can sometimes harm your well-being and, in other cases, enhance it.
Learn more about technology and its impact on our health with our Technology Detox Guide. However, if you'd like to join our Ruan Detox Warriors at the D-Tox Academy, you can access an online library of resources to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields from our technology. Pillar 3 is our EMF Detox program, which will not only scaffold a lifestyle that helps minimize social isolation but also reduces your EMF exposure. Learn more here: EMF Detox at D-Tox Academy.
About Sophia Ruan Gushée
Sophia Ruan Gushée is a preeminent nontoxic lifestyle expert, author of the critically acclaimed books A to Z of D-Toxing and EMF Detox Workbook, creator of D-Tox Academy and 40-Day Home Detox, and host of the Practical Nontoxic Living podcast.
She has helped thousands of people eliminate harmful—often hidden—chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields from their homes and lifestyles. Based on more than 15 years of tracking the latest research, she believes that removing these toxins is the overlooked key to unlocking greater mindfulness, mental clarity, emotional harmony, and physical healing.
Sophia also works with companies and served on the prestigious Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and the exclusive Well+Good Council. She has appeared or been featured on the most popular health and wellness platforms including The Doctor Oz Show, Health magazine, Family Circle magazine, MindBodyGreen, and much more. You can learn more about Sophia by clicking here: Sophia Ruan Gushée.
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