A few years ago, I attended a healthcare conference where the keynote speaker talked about the loneliness epidemic. That presentation really stayed with me, as I had never realized just how great an impact loneliness has on health or how many people suffer its effects.
When the pandemic hit, I accepted an invitation to hear Dr. Vivek Murthy, who served as the 19th U.S. surgeon general (and has been nominated to serve again as the 21st), speak on loneliness as a pervasive public health issue. His book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, inspired me to consider the role technology can play in battling social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Loneliness
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts were concerned about an epidemic of loneliness. National surveys found that more than one out of three U.S. adults over the age of 45 suffered from chronic loneliness and most adults did not participate in any kind of social group.
According to research, social isolation and loneliness are linked to many serious health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline, and premature death. In fact, the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
COVID-19 has only amplified the problem. Survey results from a recent report by the AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation revealed that significantly more people are experiencing intense feelings of loneliness as a result of social distancing during the pandemic.
The Technology Dichotomy
COVID-19 has certainly proven how technology can help us reimagine the future of work, access healthcare with virtual solutions, and connect with one another in a socially-distanced world.
As inherently social creatures, people are drawn to the allure of the instant connection technology can provide. However, there is a paradox when it comes to the relationship between loneliness and technology. It connects us, yet it isolates us.
Research on the matter is mixed: while some research has shown higher use of social technology leads to decreased feelings of loneliness and better health, other research shows that less time spent on social media reduces loneliness and increases wellbeing.
Whether the use of technology increases or decreases social isolation and loneliness appears to mostly come down to how people use it to boost their wellbeing and forge connections with others.
How Technology Can Help Fix the Loneliness Epidemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a flurry of technological innovations – from virtual healthcare and drone deliveries to vaccines and video conferencing platforms. It has also exposed a growing public health need for technologies to address not only social isolation, but also emotional well-being.
Here are eight ways individuals and businesses can use technology to effectively build human connections, ease loneliness, and improve wellbeing:
- Use social and communication technologies to enhance relationships rather than replace them
- Establish a sense of community through online forums and social groups
- Join a virtual support group
- Try conversing with a chatbot to work through a problem
- Incorporate fitness, mindfulness, meditation, or other wellbeing apps into your daily routine
- Maintain regular communications with family, close friends, and coworkers via video conferencing, phone, email, texting, instant messaging, or social media
- Strengthen communication and collaboration among team members with project management tools
- Interact meaningfully with customers and add value to their lives by sharing useful insights and news via newsletters, blog content, social media
Don’t Forget the Human Touch
Ultimately, there is nothing that can replace face-to-face human connection. In many ways, our experience with the pandemic is paving the way for a more socially connected future.
Last June, I wrote how the pandemic was forcing companies to rethink the customer experience. Prior to COVID-19, research showed that 64% of U.S. consumers felt companies had lost touch with the human element of customer experience.
As people continue to navigate a socially distanced world, they crave more human connection. The key to enhancing an individual’s interaction with technology is to keep in mind that technology should not completely replace the human element. It is more important than ever to infuse a human touch into every technological transaction.