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PART 3 - Designing Digital Tools

Designing Digital Tools

In this section, we shift from problem-articulation to problem-solving. How can we create digital tools to help us navigate feelings of loneliness? In the non-digital realm, there are numerous coping strategies against loneliness. Mindfulness and positive psychology are also approaches to reducing the psychological aspects of loneliness that are backed by research evidence. Interventions on loneliness typically address: “(a) social cognitive changes; (b) social access (opportunities for connection); and (c) provision of social resources/support,” added Louis Tay, Associate Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Purdue University. “Meta-analyses show that the most successful interventions are around social cognitive changes, but these interventions seem to integrate b and c, as well. Thus, new technologies will likely need to consider all three.”

The following section outlines key themes to consider in developing potential digital tools that may be helpful in navigating experiences of loneliness. While the themes are partitioned into categories, any future digital tool will likely require an overlap of one or more themes.

Identity and social comparison
One particular avenue for exploration includes further research on the role that social comparison and identity play when it comes to feelings of loneliness online. Research on social comparison and the fear of missing out suggest that both relate to the link between passive social media use, depressive symptoms, and self-perceptions. Given what we understand of loneliness as part expectation-setting, it is reasonable to question whether social media amplifies or reduces the gap between reality and expectation, exacerbating social comparison. Take for example a situation in which a “platform defines ‘social’ as someone with X number of followers or online friends,” described Stephanie Cacioppo, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “And you only have ‘X-1 online friends,’ then it is reasonable to believe that you might feel lonely. If social media would define ‘social relationship’ by quality rather than the number, perhaps it would reduce loneliness.”

Additional points include a need to determine the intended outcome and exact function that a social media service provides for its users. One example is whether social media aims to maximize connection, build richer relationships, or provide a space for people to recognize their own value. If the latter, the key is to develop technologies that enable individuals to safely share their authentic selves with others online. This safe space could also enable people to reflect deeply on their own identities and find what brings them joy, which leads us to the theme of meaning and purpose.

Meaning and purpose
Appealing to a person’s meaning and purpose in life may help mitigate loneliness. The 2006 Blue Zones study, which has identified nine lifestyle habits of the world’s healthiest, longest lived people, suggests that “knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.” Where do people find meaning in life? For some, this includes religious affiliations, artistic innovation, or community engagement. “Life meaning does not obviously inherently depend on social relations. Yet, in practice, it seems likely that people find meaning in their social relations,” wrote Tyler F. Stillman, Roy Baumesiter,, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Purpose, efficacy, value, and positive self-worth have all been identified as key criteria of a meaningful life and must be achieved through one’s actual daily experiences.

One specific example can be found in the work of the AARP Foundation. Since 2016, the AARP Foundation has led the way in researching and developing digital tools to help their community navigate feelings of loneliness and social isolation. A 2018 study found that 1 in 3 adults ages 45 and older are lonely. In addition, social isolation and loneliness have serious economic implications. For example, a study found that Medicare spends an estimated $6.7 billion each year on socially isolated older adults.

In 2019, the AARP Foundation initiated a pilot program to investigate the viability of using hands-free, voice-activated technology to maintain sustained social connectedness for low-income older adults (age 50+) living in independent housing or federally subsidized rental properties. The pilot was implemented across five communities in the Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. areas. Key outcomes focused on social interaction, subjective social support, and loneliness. Learnings from this pilot study included the need for a “shared journey of learning” in order to increase the comfort with and knowledge of devices, apps, and skills. This raises the question: How can digital tools help the lonely (at any age) find meaning and/or the ability to connect with an identity greater than themselves?

Social connection
Like loneliness, language explaining what “social connection” online is and how it is measured remains in debate. It should be noted that what constitutes a “meaningful social interaction” is most likely tied to the impact generated from the interaction, itself, not necessarily whether or not the interaction involves technology. Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University described two routes for connecting with a community:

The first is a connection to the cause, the belief, or mission of a community. The second is a set of personal ties that are enabled by being part of the community. The first of those connections [connection to the collective] isn’t being changed very much by the reduction of mobility. For the second, technology [the how] is less important than the people one is connecting with [the who] and the content of an interaction [the what].

This was echoed by Sue Phillips, Co-founder of Sacred Design Lab, who suggested that “content is the most important question” when establishing a social connection. Phillips described social media as offering high-volume, but largely low-value, content. The need is to encourage the sharing of content that provides meaning and belonging to users in a safe and trustworthy space. Related is the need to examine how reciprocity impacts the ways in which loneliness is shared and experienced by people. The hypothesis is that, in some cases, a person’s perceived weaknesses (e.g. feeling unhappy) can be useful for others as a learning experience. In a similar spirit, there is a need to consider how we may leverage our own experience of loneliness to help destigmatize the experience for others, and whether this could be considered a shared opportunity and/or meaningful content among those users.

It is true that social connection provides promising strategies. Yet, as Brittney Cooper, Associate Professor at Rutgers University, stated during the public webinar Virtually Alone: “Being connected is not the same as staving off loneliness.” Instead, we must recognize that feeling lonely is also a sense that “there is no one in your life that is a witness to it,” said Cooper. “So in a moment, where everyone has access to the platform that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allows many of us to have, it doesn’t seem to combat people’s deep sense that they are misunderstood or unheard, and that they want to have a voice in the world, and that they want that voice to be valued.”

Cooper also raised an important point that, in some cases, finding your group is based on an unhealthy connection. “When we combat loneliness through connection, sometimes the basis of that connection can be unhealthy. People are connected by their anger and their fear, so we need to figure out how to mediate the unhealthy emotions that undergird the basis of the connection.”

Can decisions in the design of a platform or online interaction address these concerns? Possibly. One recommendation is to design technology that is a supplement to our social infrastructure and that allows us to move between modes of social connection (e.g., from online social media to offline discussions or from one social platform to the other).

Hybrid models
The role technology can and should play in mitigating feelings of loneliness and social isolation is in facilitating both online and offline social interactions. In the same study on “meaningful social interactions,” findings suggest that the communication medium (e.g., offline versus online) may be less important than other interaction characteristics, such as strong or weak ties, synchronicity, and whether or not people captured the interaction interaction through photos or videos.

Examples of this hybrid model can be seen in online group fitness classes, virtual happy hours, and the coordination of public protests. While we see many examples like these surfacing during the pandemic, challenges in equity and access limit the efficacy of this approach across populations. For a hybrid model to effectively reach all communities with high-risk factors for loneliness and social isolation, we must also address resource and capacity needs.

Summary. Given the complex and interrelated nature of loneliness, new and innovative technology-driven solutions should reflect a comprehensive approach that incorporates what we understand more broadly about human well-being, such as authenticity, reciprocity, meaning, and purpose. Moreover, despite the numerous online channels available for people to be heard, the structure of these digital tools and the spaces they provide may result in power imbalances. Take for example Twitter’s blue verified badge, which is used to indicate the authenticity of an account to the general public. This demarcation separates legitimate versus illegitimate voices. Lastly, hybrid approaches to social connection that utilize technology to facilitate offline social life can be fruitful. The key is to “establish and enforce boundaries between the online and the offline social life, recognizing the strength of both and finding ways to have the online not distract from the offline,” as Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University, noted.

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