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CONCLUSION - Stakeholder Responsibilities

Stakeholder Responsibilities: Whose Loneliness Matters?
In many ways, this effort emerged from a summer’s worth of discussions that were filled with both more questions and more information than we had anticipated. We are struck by the various, interrelated conditions—individual, situational, social, and structural—that may influence a lonely experience. Specifically, it is the environmental or structural facrs that perpetuate power dynamics and systematic discrimination for certain communities experiencing loneliness that resonated loudest. Coupled with today’s social and political climate, it is critical that we shine a light on the built structures, whether in technology design or public health systems, that create barriers to equitable social connection. The question Whose loneliness matters? should serve as a powerful reminder and guide. If we are indeed at the precipice of a “loneliness epidemic,” then prioritizing access to the right tools, digital or not, should be of concern for all stakeholders, from civil society to government to the tech industry. To emphasize, it will take the talent and expertise of various actors from across domains to deliberately and thoughtfully aid in addressing the experience of loneliness.

Moving forward, it is necessary to also consider the roles and ethical responsibility of these stakeholders. In places such as the United Kingdom, where a Minister of Loneliness is the gold standard, government officials have provided a strong signal for the recognition, validation, and public support for combating loneliness and social isolation for its citizens.

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has shifted how people perceive and speak about issues related to mental health and well-being, particularly loneliness and social isolation.

Therefore, there is a need to both raise awareness of its commonality and to provide “the language that makes people feel safe to talk about issues they might feel ashamed of,” as said Diana Barran, UK Minister for Civil Society and Loneliness. Will other governments follow suit?

For technology companies, the role and responsibilities can be murkier. To address this, roundtable participants offered several suggestions. First, there is a need for increased private-public-academic partnerships and a shared common ground with researchers. To this end, it is necessary to evaluate and consider approaches to ensuring that a diverse set of perspectives and voices are equitably represented and included throughout the research and design process. In addition, some roundtable participants offered the critique that any company that profits from an individual’s digital connection must be forthright about their research motivations and must be willing to be held accountable by a third party. All of which must also take into account any technical, ethical, privacy, and legal challenges faced by the technology company.

We began this exploration asking: To what extent does technology ameliorate or exacerbate feelings of loneliness? What materialized is a trove of ideas and insights that could fill far more than the pages included in this report. And, while we identify and speak to many of the gaps in and challenges to research, it is clear that solution-oriented pathways can and will be explored by technologists, governments, and researchers. This is just the beginning of the journey to understand and better prepare for our digital future. Our intent is to draw attention to the topic and to raise pertinent questions.

We began by asking: To what extent does technology ameliorate or exacerbate feelings of loneliness?

Most importantly, we urge each stakeholder to consider and undertake the following commitments:

The Public: Raising awareness of the prevalence of loneliness and its associated negative health effects, and prioritizing to seek meaningful connections, whether in-person or virtually.

Technologists: Co-creating ethically aligned and socially conscious digital tools with specific communities of impact in order to emphasize more meaningful connections, mitigate unintended consequences (such as bias or safety), and or more hybrid interactions

Industry: Developing a transparent and accountable research agenda that articulates motivation, ethical considerations, and potential use of research in product development, as well as working closely with academic institutions, research labs, and community organizations via partnerships and data-sharing. This requires the collaboration of cross-industry stakeholders, from technology to healthcare.

Government: Utilizing public health resources to raise awareness of and promote the understanding of loneliness and social isolation issues. Specific policy recommendations from other efforts can be found here.

Civic Institutions: Elevating key questions of, opportunities for, and challenges to loneliness for all segments of the population, with a specific focus on historically marginalized communities.

Researchers: Broadening approaches for examining the potential impact of technology on our subjective well-being. This includes a call for use of casual oriented research. different metrics, frameworks, and instruments for measurement that reflect the diverse social media ecosystem, consumer behavior, and historically underrepresented communities.

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