In a world that is more digitally connected than ever, nearly half of people globally feel lonely, and are struggling in ways that should concern us all. Many say they are overwhelmed by life’s choices, and they are also more likely to say they believe their lives have become meaningless.
However, many who purport to be lonely, also feel they need to spend time alone. The concept of being lonely by choice is explored in Olivia Laing’s book ‘The Lonely City’ where she describes how loneliness can in itself promote the avoidance of others and fear of rejection. This creates a vicious circle, and can prompt hostility towards those who try and connect.
Lonely people are also likely to value populist revolution – a desire to revolt against elites who are thought to be conspiring to hide the truth. Individuals associated with this value are also looking for someone to set an example of how they should live their lives – but look online for this support, rather than in their own communities. Indeed, the world’s loneliest people spend the most time on social media.
Previously it was elderly people who were most likely to feel lonely and would face the health risks associated with this, but now the young – and the heaviest users of social media – are most likely to report being lonely.
This suggests that the young, who are increasingly spending more time on screens, may be the most alienated. As the technology is so new we can’t yet see if this is simply a life stage the first internet natives will grow out of, or a sign of how future generations will feel permanently; if it is the former we will hear a lot more about the alienated Gen Z as they reach adulthood. Japan offers some alarming early signals here. There are now an estimated 500,000 Hikikomori, people who have become modern hermits and have withdrawn themselves from the pressures of modern life.70 While similar behaviours have also been observed in South Korea.
This has significant implications for governments and society. For example, a study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University found that ‘being disconnected is just as dangerous to good health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day’71 – so the healthcare costs created by cohorts of lonely young people could be staggering. In contrast, for business there are likely to be increasing opportunities to find ways and create new technologies to connect people in real life. In our increasingly fragmented world, social media has the power to bring marginalised groups together.
Ultimately, the very technology that may have been a contributing cause to loneliness – social media – may help solve the issue. Whatever the future holds, however, loneliness seems likely to remain a problem for governments and society to grapple with. The technology may be new, but the need for human beings to have real and genuine connections is as old as time.
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