Technology is Making Us Less Lonely, Not More

Pokemon GO, the app that lets players combine real-life activities with a virtual game is taking over the world. In and amongst crazy stories like the woman who found a body while playing, or robbers using Pokemon to target victims, or concerns about privacy is a story you might have missed.

Many take too narrow a view of both tech and loneliness.

Pokemon GO is doing what no video game has done before.  It’s getting people to leave their houses and talk to strangers. Players are tweeting that the game is alleviating their depression. “Pokemon Go is literally reversing Putnam’s Bowling Alone,” Sam Hammond remarked in a tweet.

Part of what’s so surprising is that technology, especially mobile phones, is usually cast as a social isolator. According to TIME, many social scientists say technology is increasing the risk of loneliness. “Technology like texting and social media has made it easier to avoid forming substantive relationships in the flesh and blood.”

But I think that takes too narrow a view of both tech and loneliness.

The Problem of Loneliness

New research is revealing that being lonely is even more dangerous to your health than being overweight.

Loneliness can increase your risk of dying by 26% according to a recent review of studies. Research has shown that social isolation — or lacking social connection — and living alone can respectively increase mortality risk by 29% and 32%. According to the Independent, “Recent research indicates that this may be the next biggest public health issue on par with obesity and substance abuse.”

By contrast, a recent JAMA study found that grade 1 obesity (BMI 30-<35) was not associated with any greater mortality, than being normal weight (BMI 18.5-<25). In fact, people who weigh up to 30 pounds more than those within the “normal” BMI range for healthy weight have a lower risk of death.

We’re constantly fretting over the so-called “obesity epidemic” but why is no one talking about a loneliness epidemic?

One reason is that unlike body weight, loneliness can be easy to hide. And easy to miss. While you likely know how much you weigh, sometimes it’s hard to realize your depression is also loneliness.

Is Tech Isolating Us?

Everyone from the New York Times to Social Media Week is asking: Does technology make us lonely?

It’s not difficult to wonder why. Everyone has been the victim of a date or group activity that consisted of more screen staring than real-life conversation. Or had someone stop a meal to take a photo.

There’s even research to back up the idea that screen time is negatively associated with social connection. “Forty two per cent of Australians who used an average of four methods of technology to communicate [such as email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter] were lonely compared with 11 per cent of people who used only one,” Sue Miller, a manager at Relationships Australia Queensland, told ABC.

The Truth

Technology is isolating people in two distinct ways. First, it’s giving us a compelling reason not to talk to each other. It’s difficult for our brains to put down the constant stream of captivating information and affirmation and distraction to just be present in a social interaction.

Technology isn’t just a distraction from what matters. It’s also a solution for what isolates.

Our brains are wired to love distraction, to crave the validation of notifications, and to follow shiny objects. And companies love to give our brains what they want in exchange for sweet, sweet data they can sell to advertisers. The problem is that what our brains want in the short term isn’t what’s good for us in the long-term.

A combination of strong and weak ties is what makes us happy. People are happiest when they are both tightly integrated into a small, close-knit community and have a wide network of acquaintances they can call upon.

The second way tech isolates us is that it makes it easier for us to survive without talking to other people. Right now, technology makes it possible to work, eat, and even go to the doctor without leaving your home. While most people still have to interact with other people in order to get their basic needs met, soon tech will advance to the point where no one has to talk to anyone anymore.

The Way Forward

People who worry about the isolating effects of tech are only seeing half the picture. They’re seeing the stick, but not the carrot. They see the distraction, but not the facilitation.

Technology facilitates human connection by freeing up your time, money, and energy so you can put more of it into being present, patient, and persistent.

It’s true that tech lures us away from meaningful connections and makes isolation more practically feasible.

But in what future will technology end the need to get out of your house (the stick) without providing an equally powerful incentive to do so anyway (the carrot)? Look at Pokemon GO. Thousands of people outside their homes not because they have to be outside, but because a game developer found a way to profit from making walking around outside more fun than it was before.

Technology isn’t just a distraction from what matters. It’s also a solution for what isolates.

Look at Virtual Reality for an unlikely example. When virtual reality gets good enough, technophones warn, no one will live in reality. But sometimes reality isn’t worth living in, and VR can help keep people alive and sane until it is. For example burn victims must undergo multiple incredibly painful wound cleanings daily. One solution? VR games to distract patients. You’d be surprised how well they work. We’ve known since the early aughts that an overloaded brain literally has less capacity to process pain. But it’s only been since innovation has brought down the price and portability of VR that it’s been cost-effective to test VR for pain reduction.

The irony of seeing tech as an isolator is that it ignores all the isolators tech can replace. For example the standard treatment for helping burn victims deal with the cleanings is opiates. If you’ve ever talked to someone on powerful painkillers, you’ll understand that it’s way harder to connect with someone high off their gourd than someone who looks at their phone too often.

Or look at this baby and tell me technology is isolating us: