Technology’s role in the ‘loneliness epidemic’

Are tech companies helping the lonely or taking advantage of them?

People collaged with social media iconography
(Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban for The Washington Post)
3 min

Being a human can be lonely.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said in 2017 that Americans were living through a “loneliness epidemic,” due in part to oppressive and impersonal workplaces. Six years and one global pandemic later, Murthy is urging people to confront loneliness and its growing threat to our health, according to an advisory released earlier this month.

As Coronavirus precautions sent millions home from work and school, loneliness transitioned from a private embarrassment to a national talking point. Worries about social isolation spiked as vulnerable people were cut off from family and friends and our social lives migrated further online. Anxious headlines asked if technology was turning us into sad loners. Murthy’s advisory cites one study linking heavy social media use (more than two hours a day) with loneliness, and the American Psychological Association issued guidance last week urging parents to “monitor adolescents for signs of problematic social media use that can impair their ability to engage in daily roles and routines.”

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With millions of Americans suffering from loneliness, this series examines how technology brings us together but also tears us apart.
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Today, loneliness is down from its mid-pandemic peak, when 25 percent of U.S. adults reported feeling lonely “a lot of the day,” according to a Gallup survey. As gyms and offices reopen, 17 percent of us now say we feel alone, the survey indicates. It’s better than before, but 44 million lonely people is a problem worth attention.

Feeling alone has been linked to adverse health outcomes including heart disease, stroke, cognitive decline and low immunity. Some studies compare social isolation to mortality risks such as smoking. More recent research found links between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease.

Loneliness also makes us feel more anxious and depressed, as we weather life’s storms without close friends to call for help. Americans’ circles of close friends have shrunk dramatically since the 1990s, according to the Survey Center on American Life. Gallup research estimates more than 300 million people globally don’t have a single friend, and one in five don’t have friends or family they can count on during difficult times.

Feeling loneliness is not new, but it is normal and we want to talk about it. What's your experience with loneliness? Does tech make it better or worse? (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

One of our national pastimes is guessing who or what is responsible for loneliness, the ancient human condition. Is it social media? Remote work? The nuclear family? Not enough sidewalks?

In real life, causes of loneliness vary, Americans say. People get lonely after breakups, after moving or after soul-crushing jobs. Isolation also looks different at age 22 compared to 82. Many times, technology including social media helps forge new connections. Other times, it makes people feel worse.

The Washington Post asked people of all ages to share their experiences with loneliness and the role technology has played. From high-schoolers to new moms to people in assisted-living facilities, we’re examining how people find and keep their friends. Are tech companies helping the lonely or taking advantage of them? Join us as we tell their stories.