In today’s world, an enormous portion of our time is spent sitting behind laptop screens, looking down at cell phones, or working with some other piece of technology that typically leaves us too preoccupied to engage in real human interaction. And so the seed of loneliness is planted in the lives of many of us, only sprouting and continuing to grow as we neglect the need for interaction with others.
The loneliness “epidemic” has spread quite quickly, leaving many void of the rewarding sensation experienced after making new acquaintances or just taking part in an interesting conversation. According to Dr. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at University of California, daily exposure to digital technologies can change the way our brains function. Dr. Small says that the more time a person spends with modern technology the more they drift from the use of fundamental social skills. He also say that brain circuits involved in face-to-face communication can weaken and leave people more susceptible to isolation, founding the grounds for loneliness.
So how exactly does technology lead to lonesomeness? The truth is much of the communicating we do through our devices requires us to be emotionally and/or mentally isolated with our noses in our screens. So much of human communication is body language and other signals (e.g. tone) that cannot be expressed in a text message. So that disconnection that we may feel at times cannot be fully alleviated until there is real interaction, until that person can hear a voice, see a facial expression, and recognize the language of full body movement.
This loneliness issue has become a matter of grave concern worldwide and is actually considered a public health dilemma by many experts and organizations, at par with things like obesity and substance abuse. Loneliness has even been shown to increase mortality risk by 26%. Also disturbing is the harsh cycle that tech-induced loneliness can lead to: Overexposure to technology can lead to isolation, which leads to loneliness, which leads us back to our smart phones and computers in search of some form of social interaction. Our smartphones may very well be making us sick in ways we hadn’t even considered before.
Then there are smart cities, which aim to increase overall efficiency and quality of life by integrating technology into every part of our lives. The overwhelming amount of integral technology in smart cities makes technology virtually impossible to escape. Smart cities like Seattle, New York, and San Francisco would decrease the need for people to talk to one another with things like apps to order food, or no-checkout supermarkets and bookstores. Smart cities really don’t encourage human interaction and can be a breeding space for loneliness because of their extensive automation. They leave us more inclined not to talk or interact with people simply because we might not have to. And as our hunger for companionship and interaction grows, our social skills and efforts to satisfy that hunger will continue to dwindle away.
If we really want to combat the terrible effects of loneliness and the emotion itself, we can start with simply improving our current forms of communication. Making our digital conversations more thought-provoking and in depth can foster the desire for more person-to-person contact. By replacing some of our text messages with phone calls to friends we can also be taking a step in the right direction. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, our deep need to feel a true sense of belonging will never fade, so we’d better spend our energies trying to make every individual feel included. It’ll make for a brighter future for all of us.
By Robyn Forbes