The Loneliness Epidemic
Friendships and connectedness are on the decline. That's a big problem.
Americans are an increasingly lonely bunch. US teens and adults across all age groups report spending far more time alone, and far less time with friends, today than they did in 2013. And this trend toward the solitary started before Covid, although obviously a hyper-isolating pandemic didn’t help. In 2014, the proportion of Americans with smartphones tipped to over 50 percent. That same year, time spent with friends ticked down. And the numbers became far more extreme in 2020.
This is a problem of the utmost importance. A society of isolated people is a radically unhealthy society. An isolated society is also a more volatile, extreme, and violent society.
And isolation begets more isolation. According to the Post, “Relative to 2010-2013, the average American teenager spent approximately 11 fewer hours with friends each week in 2021 (a 64 percent decline) and 12 additional hours alone (a 48 percent increase).” These years are crucial ones not just for establishing friendships, but for brain development and for learning how to be around and connect with other people. Human beings are social animals, but socializing is a skill. And when you don’t use it, you lose it — something I am sure many of us realized as we came out of our pandemic isolation and felt uncharacteristically awkward at parties, events, or simply in the presence of others. When teenagers decrease their socializing, they don’t learn how to deal with interpersonal conflict and disagreement; they don’t learn how to cultivate deep connections and form new ones. That’s going to make for less well-adjusted, lonelier adults — adults who have a harder time maintaining relationships, keeping jobs, and functioning in society.
And online socializing is simply not a replacement for in-person interaction. Connections online may be more numerous, but their depth is shallower. Interactions are coarser — it’s much easier to be a jerk, or to tell someone they’re a jerk, when you don’t see their face. And communication itself is shallower: Human beings are animals, and while words are of course important, we also communicate through tone, inflection, body language, facial expressions, touch, and a million little subtle voice and non-verbal cues that you cannot get over Discord, or even Zoom. We are more nuanced in person; we are more forgiving; and we end up more connected.
That isn’t a dig at forming and maintaining relationships online — I have formed many important relationships online, and have maintained my friendships though all kinds of technological tools. But not all connection is created equal. And when tech tools begin to supplant or displace in-person connection, that’s a real loss.
It’s also dangerous. Not to put too fine a point on it, but not a whole lot of good comes from under-socialized individuals who spend more and more of their time online. That way lies extremism, resentment, and increased dysfunction.
And when entire communities have fewer people out socializing, that’s bad for public safety and for the economy. People who socialize with each other tend to leave their houses. Maybe they walk around the neighborhood; maybe they go to church; maybe they go to a bar or a coffee shop; maybe they go to a work happy hour; maybe they gather their kids in a playgroup, or skateboard in the park, or, I don’t know, hunt for the illusive yellow-bellied warbler with a local birders club. But these socializing individuals mean more people out on the streets, which gives a sense of general safety and community and looking out for each other. This is good: Communities where more people are outside and visible are communities that wind up safer and better off than those where people are shut inside of their houses and there is little to no foot traffic on the sidewalks.
Isolation is also bad for individuals. It may feel good in the moment to play a video game or watch television or scroll through social media instead of spending time with other people, but longer term, isolation is associated with significant mental decline including dementia; higher risk of heart attack and stroke; higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide; and other health impacts that make isolation on par with smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity in terms of death risk.
We are seeing so much of this in the extreme right now, in our post-Covid world. Society is coarser — everything from people screaming at flight attendants to higher murder rates to depressing upticks in overdose deaths point to a society that has grown colder, crueler, less considerate, less sociable.
So why is this happening? Part of it is choice, or the illusion of it: The laptop, tablet or phone you are reading this on has been designed by some of the smartest people in the world to be as addictive as possible, and so are all the apps and games on it. Lots of people do choose to tune out behind a screen rather than get out with other humans, because a screen feels better in the short term — it gives you that dopamine hit, and doesn’t ask for anything in return. There are no awkward conversations or compromises, no disagreements over where to eat or the political issue of the day. You don’t even have to put on pants.
And part of it are the other demands of our increasingly busy lives. I’m also fascinated by this 2021 study of declining rates of friendship in the United States, and particularly by the obvious fact that there are only so many hours in the day, and Americans are increasingly spending those hours on two things: Work and our children.
Americans work an absurd number of hours, and we have a national norm of intensive patenting. We are not entitled to paid vacation, paid sick leave, or even paid parental leave. Parents today also spend twice as much time with their children as they did 50 years ago, when many, many more mothers were at home full-time. During that same time period, the number of hours women spent working outside the home also almost doubled (men, on the other hand, saw their working hours decline).
Americans are also watching way more television. On average, we spend more than two hours a day on social media, and more than seven hours a day online. We spend just over an hour per day eating — which suggests we aren’t doing much of our eating in the company of other people. Fewer of us are married or partnered. And while I don’t think a decline in marriage is necessarily a bad thing, I think a decline in partnership probably is — not because everyone needs a romantic partner, but because most people say they want a romantic partner, and pairing up (with a lover, with a friend, or tripling up or quadrupling up or whatever floats your boat) is generally better for long-term health and happiness.
Between work, childrearing, and our increasingly solo leisure time and even eating time, there just aren’t many hours left in the day for friendship and social interactions outside of those within one’s own household. And at least people with kids or people who are married — the proportions of which are both decreasing — have someone to spend time with, even if that person is a three-year-old.
The shift to remote work hasn’t helped, either. I work at home, too, and have for a decade. But remote work radically changed during the pandemic era. Instead of being an outlier, my way of working became the norm. And that meant that the usual rhythms of office life faded away, including for people who work at home. Pre-pandemic, I worked roughly along with office hours — meeting friends for an after-work drink, knocking off around 6 or 7 most nights. Now it’s totally different. There are no “off” hours. I routinely work until 9 or 10pm. I go out much less, go to work lunches much less, don’t to go a workspace at all (mine closed down entirely). Restaurants and bars close earlier. Midtown Manhattan is a ghost town. Despite being married and having a great circle of friends with whom I socialize fairly often, I am absolutely less social and more isolated now than I was before the pandemic.
This is all more convenient, I suppose. Working from home means less time commuting (which, for people in cities with public transport, also means less time around other people — good for avoiding Covid, but bad for the kind of informal interactions with a huge cross-section of the population that I suspect make people who live in New York more tolerant and open). Working from home means more time with your kids, although I wonder if that time is of higher quality. Working from home means more time to run errands and do household tasks. But it doesn’t necessarily mean better mental or physical health, and it certainly means far fewer in-person human interactions in any given day — and that’s probably a bad thing for mental health, physical health, creativity, workplace cohesion, and all kinds of positive outcomes.
It’s going to be difficult to undo the whole knot of this mess. It’s not bad that parents are spending more time with their kids, but it’s not great if that time is coming at the expense of other valuable relationships and connections. It’s not great if parents are spending more time with their kids because life is simply many times more competitive and cutthroat today than it was a few decades ago, and so parents feel like the stakes are impossibly high, and if they don’t micro-manage their children’s lives with homework help and tutoring and ferrying back and forth to a million activities and being intimately involved in their children’s social and academic lives, then their kids may fall perilously behind. Parents who carry those fears, by the way, aren’t unreasonable — life is more competitive and perilous than it was for, say, Baby Boomers, and a lot of children are going to fall down a class rung or two. But the current way of doing things is terrible for parents (and particularly for mothers), and doesn’t seem to be working out all that well for over-scheduled, under-socialized, stressed-out kids, either. Schools can reconsider the demands they put on students. Universal childcare would help a lot. But the child-rearing piece of this is perhaps the most difficult, because it’s wrapped up in complex social and economic forces that are not easy to change through personal decision-making or even family-friendly policy.
Work is a slightly easier one to regulate: Workplaces can be more humane. Policy-makers can pass laws that require predictable work hours and limit long working days. They can invest in infrastructure, including public transport. Companies can work to create policies that allow for flexibility while still having some in-person time.
And each of us, of course, can try to make different small decisions. Close the laptop and call a friend. Notice which social media sites or gaming platforms suck up your time and ask yourself if this is really how you want to spend hours of your life. Go for a walk. Schedule an exercise class and dinner with a friend. Call up someone you think may be lonely or struggling just to say hi.
It’s easy (and rational) to be afraid of an identifiable virus and a diagnosable condition. But isolation comes with its dangers, too. And as we all plot our paths forward in this era of imperfect public health guidelines and effective vaccines, countering the epidemic of isolation should on the agenda, too.