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PART 2 - What We Learned About Loneliness, Social Connection, and Technology

What We’ve Learned

The motivation for this inquiry is the hypothesis that technology may have both a positive and or negative impact on loneliness and social connection. The question is whether we are equipped with the right tools, methods, and language to systematically examine this phenomenon. This next section highlights what we’ve learned from our discussions with experts throughout the summer and what are potential next steps towards helping people better navigate the experience of loneliness.

There is no strong evidence that indicates levels of loneliness have increased globally during the pandemic.
Human connection serves us in many powerful ways. For example, despite physical distancing and mandated lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple studies suggest loneliness has not only leveled out but, in certain cases, improved. Why? These findings are echoed in studies conducted both in the UK and in Germany. Some researchers posit a “sense of solidarity” and our innate urge to connect with others to have mitigated some of the effects of being unable to come together physically. Other potential reasons may also include the ways in which people have created moments of interaction (e.g. virtual happy hours or birthday parties); a shift in populations reporting being newly lonely; and or likely discrepancies in the methodologies used (e.g. timeframes, location).

However, certain populations (vulnerable populations and life stages) are more likely to experience loneliness (before and during COVID), such as younger adults, people who live alone, and people who have gone through major life events. It should also be noted that some research suggests levels of stress, anxiety, and depression to be on the rise since the start of the pandemic. And while loneliness and depression are highly correlated, they are not the same. Loneliness, as described above, is a motivational drive and natural reaction by humans. As Cacioppo & Patrick (2008) point out: “loneliness reflects how you feel about your relationships. Depression reflects how you feel, period.”i

We highlight this learning for two reasons. First, it illustrates the complexity of studying loneliness over time and its potential sensitivity to changes in question-ordering, procedures, and sampling. Longitudinal studies of loneliness are scarce, and for the majority of research that has looked at this issue over the past couple of decades, loneliness is reported to remain relatively stable. So, is loneliness on the rise? Current research does not suggest a dramatic rise of loneliness in the past decade. Given this and because loneliness is so subjective and context-dependent, a writ-large technology across populations is likely to leave many users feeling unsatisfied. This means tailoring tech for device accessibility, and life phase (including historically marginalized experiences), and reflect the many different ways individuals interact with specific technologies.

Loneliness is shaped not just by individual factors but by social constructs and the environment in which we live.
To understand loneliness and potential solutions requires an examination at multiple levels—from an individual’s sense of self and identity, to their relation within a community, to the social and structural factors that contribute to loneliness. Yet, as we learned, equity and inclusion are often overlooked components in the study of loneliness and social connection. To mitigate the experience of loneliness requires action and accountability by a variety of stakeholders, such as technologists, industry, government, and researchers.

Furthermore, we learned from experts that current loneliness measures may not fully represent what is happening in these communities. Take for example the delineation between solitude, social isolation, and loneliness. Missing from this list is the feeling of alienation. Cirecie West-Olatunji, Professor at Xavier University in Louisiana, noted that there is a critical need to recognize if and how being alienated—from people, resources, and/or capacity— may or may not impact a specific community’s well-being. This is best illustrated in how practices of exclusion directly and indirectly influence health-promoting pathways, such as access to therapy, which are further complicated by the multiple social forces that shape both our identities and experiences. Loneliness can therefore serve as a powerful reflexive instrument for how systematic structures reinforce the condition.

With this, a key question then arises, “Whose loneliness matters?” To answer this, we should consider: Who has built ‘capacity’ or the ability to navigate for loneliness, culturally, and why? Who benefits from the othering that burdens marginalized communities? And what is the social responsibility of those in power? In order to address this requires the activation of various stakeholders, from academia to tech to governments.

The impact of social media on loneliness demands further study.
What we know and understand of the impact of social media platforms, on our mental and emotional well-being is inconclusive.ii Specifically, research into an individual’s subjective well-being consists of multiple domains, of which loneliness is one. In some cases, studies include loneliness within the subjective well-being measure, while others measure loneliness independently. For some research, the scientific evidence suggests correlative associations between social media use and negative subjective well-being.

For example, a study featuring three large surveys of adolescents in two countries (the U.S. and UK) found that light users of digital media (use of smartphones, computers, social media, gaming, and Internet for less than one hour per day) reported substantially higher psychological well-being (e.g., happiness) than heavy users (more than 5 hours per day). In another study, data from the UK Millennium Cohort suggests that greater social media use correlates with higher depressive symptoms for girls than boys.

On the other end of the spectrum, numerous studies suggest little or no association between social media and its impact on psychological well-being.

For example, a 2017 UNICEF report featuring an evidence-focused literature review of studies of children and time spent using digital technologies found little evidence suggesting it had a direct impact on children’s physical activity but that digital technology seems to be beneficial for their social relationships. Additionally, the report suggests the use of digital technologies may support a U-shaped relationship to children’s mental well-being, “where no use and excessive use (of digital technologies) can have a small negative impact on mental well-being, while moderate use can have a small positive impact.” More recently, Hunt Alcott, et. al, conducted a large-scale randomized evaluation of the welfare impacts of Facebook, which featured a four-week “detox” of the platform prior to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. The experiment resulted in both positive and negative effects. For example, participants who gave up Facebook reported significantly reduced knowledge of and attention to politics. The authors conclude by stating: “The estimated magnitudes imply that these negative effects are large enough to be real concerns, but also smaller in many cases than what one might have expected given prior research and popular discussion.”

Research specifically examining the relationship of social media (several of which feature Facebook) to loneliness can be split into the following categories: time spent and activities. With regards to time spent, a common finding in cross-sectional studies suggest one causal direction: lonely people use Facebook, rather than Facebook increasing feelings of loneliness in its users. In addition to time spent, there is evidence that certain kinds of activities on Facebook may make loneliness better or worse. For example, past studies have found that when people use Facebook for social purposes, it can make loneliness better over time, but when people passively use Facebook, it can make loneliness worse over time.

Whether it is illustrating associated correlations or causal effects, the research remains far from definitive. Instead, there are notable limitations and gaps that need to be addressed. Specifically, a more robust understanding of the effects and unintended consequences requires the inclusion of a diverse set of social media platforms, more causal research, longitudinal studies, different measurement approaches (such as quality of relationships and mechanisms of loneliness), use of passive sensing measures, log data, etc. Further, emphasizing only loneliness—and not the other elements of social connection (e.g., cohesion versus polarization)—obfuscates potential factors that may be useful to understanding how to mitigate effects of loneliness.

According to Robert Kraut, Hebert A. Simon Professor Emeritus of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University:

We need much more detailed understanding of the nature of the social interactions that build interpersonal connections. We don’t know what those magic ingredients might be, but just putting people together, with technology or not, is insufficient given the wide variety of ways people can interact with each other.

Moreover, there are also significant gaps in access to and opportunities for scientists to partner with social media companies, part of which is due to a reluctance by private industry to share datasets as well as legal limitations to data-sharing such as privacy regulations. This alludes to a larger concern related to trust and industry motivation for pursuing this research. Even if researchers could use the best metrics and had access to large, rich datasets (provided by social media companies, like Facebook), would the field deem the results valid? What ethical considerations does this present? We address these questions in the final section.

Summary. The study of loneliness is complex. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, some mechanisms may affect loneliness sometimes do not manifest as expected. Because loneliness reflects various factors, from individual to structural, pinpointing specific causes is challenging. Moreover, there is a limited amount of evidence on whether technology makes loneliness better or worse—and how. One immediate step is for further investment into scientific research, both financially and collaboratively, with other researchers. Specifically, in order to design and develop better technologies in this space, researchers should examine the following: measuring loneliness more generally and understanding how it is changing over time (particularly as one transitions from life stages); looking at specific subpopulations that fall below the aggregate; and examining social media specifically, focusing on different research methods and pursuing more causal research.

i Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 317.
ii For a more comprehensive review of research in this space, see Social Media Use and Mental Health: A Review.” Haidt, J., & Twenge, J. (2019). Social media use and mental health: A review. Unpublished manuscript, New York University.
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