How Technology Impacts Relationships: The Rise of Loneliness
What We Can Do to Unplug and Reconnect Socially
When our 20-something adult child expressed his loneliness recently, I felt his pain coming through the phone line. He is not alone in those feelings. We are in an epidemic, with over half (58%) of U.S. adults of all ages and socio-economic groups being lonely, according to health and wellness research. Data consistently shows that feeling alone or without enough social interaction directly relates to depression and anxiety. This can also have serious health consequences, including premature death, poor cardiovascular health, increased inflammation, hormone imbalance and disrupted sleep. The research estimates loneliness cost businesses $154 billion in lost productivity due to absenteeism.
One major factor increasing loneliness? Our progression into the digital realm. Technology is having a negative impact on dating, committed relationships and other social interactions that normally help us be less solitary.
This trend started long before the pandemic. We were already on an isolating path by excessive phone, internet and social media use. The pandemic just intensified an already growing problem, further breaking social connections by physically taking us away from family, friends and co-workers.
Even though health officials have deemed it safe to go back to work in person, many are still at home spending their days behind a computer screen rather than interacting with others at work. We also haven’t resumed our 2019-era level of socialization outside of work. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 59 percent of respondents said they have not fully returned to pre-pandemic activities.
The outlook is not all doom and gloom, though. We can make rebounding from loneliness part of our post-pandemic recovery plan. However, it may take some better discipline in how and when we use technology, and making more of an effort to be social in real life.
Devices and mind control
Have you ever been in the middle of a story when your date (or spouse) picks up their phone and starts scrolling through it? This phubbing, or the act of snubbing someone by looking at your phone instead of paying attention, causes the other person emotional harm and is detrimental to relationships.
Often, this lack of ability to stay engaged in real life correlates to a dopamine effect in the pleasure center of our brain reacting to our digital space. Social media platforms create triggers designed to keep users coming back. The comments, shares and likes signal the brain’s reward center, resulting in good feelings, like one might experience having sex, eating a favorite food or laughing with a friend. Our brain subconsciously urges us to return to the platform to repeat this behavior for a momentary high, similar to a user’s need to keep taking drugs or the compulsion to gamble. On-screen alerts or sounds indicating new activity on the platform can intensify these check-in urges.
Tech Struggles with Significant Others
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found 51% of Americans in a relationship say a partner checking their phone creates a distraction while they are trying to talk to them. What is so darn interesting on the phone? This bothers many people, leading to 34% of partners sneaking a peek to find out. This behavior breaks down trust and is detrimental to a relationship.
Partners also frequently hash out relationship issues on social media, or search for people from past dating relationships. While these activities don’t seem to be particularly bothersome for couples, how one’s partner interacts with others on social media is a bone of contention for relationships. Have you observed communication between a relationship partner and others on social media that makes you feel uncomfortable? Overall, 23% of survey respondents said observing these interactions on social media made them jealous or uncertain about their relationship, and this number jumps to 34% for people 18 to 24 years old.
Swipe Right- Technology and Dating
Online dating allows people of all ages to make all types of connections with a wide range of people. However, some feel this less personal way of meeting is fostering a loose hook-up culture among younger users, and can be upsetting to downright dangerous, particularly for women or those of alternate gender identities, at any age.
In PEW’s “Virtues and Downsides of Online Dating” research, daters believe it is very common for those who use these platforms to try appearing more desirable by lying. Most American using dating sites find the experience more frustrating than hopeful. Women, particularly under the age of 35, are more likely to be subjected to harassing behavior or unsolicited sexually explicit messages or images.
Probably the most worrisome aspect of online dating is how it is shifting the nature of romantic relationships in America. Many believe these platforms promote superficial relationships rather than meaningful ones, adding to the trend of people staying single.
Even though there is an increase in the number of relationships that originate with online dating and lead to a long-term relationship, marriage overall has been trending downward in the U.S. since 1990. Related to that is a decrease in fertility. Even though we saw a small “baby bump” during the pandemic, birth numbers are still trending down, meaning we don’t have enough children being born to sustain a stable population base or workforce in some states. Meanwhile, the aging population is growing. These factors have serious economic consequences.
Continuing to Work from Home
The percentage of remote workers more than tripled from 2019 to 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even though we can go back to work, most are choosing to continue remote work when presented with the option. This is despite evidence that 60 percent feel less connected to work mates than before the pandemic.
We Got Out of the Habit of Socializing
There may be some residual concerns over socializing because of COVID-19, which is still with us. But a 2022 survey found Americans are mostly struggling to form relationships and felt anxious about socializing. We forgot how to interact with each other and make friends. It’s more comfortable to stay home on our comfy couch and binge watch the latest Netflix series.
What Can We Do to Break the Loneliness Cycle?
If you are more comfortable with remote work over in-person jobs, choose solitary activities and communicating via technology over gathering with friends, avoid creating or re-establishing old friendships because of social anxiety, you may have created a world of learned loneliness. Working from home myself, I can relate. To stave off loneliness, we need to re-evaluate our relationships with technology and improve our human connections.
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Because these behaviors have built up over time, exacerbated by the pandemic, we need to re-train our brain with opposite signals, even if they feel uncomfortable at first. For example, if you work from home, showering and getting fully dressed as if going to an outside workplace each morning may seem like a hassle. It might be hard to take tech breaks and put down our devices. Inviting new neighbors over for dinner might trigger some anxiety. You might not want to raise your hand for a group volunteer opportunity at work. Accepting an invitation for an outing with friends may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Do these things anyway!
Just like starting a new exercise routine after COVID made us couch potatoes, we need to reconnect with being less emotionally and physically sedentary and engage with humans.
- When you get dressed and ready for work at home each day, you’re not only mentally prepared for work, you can spontaneously decide to meet a friend for lunch, or not freak out if someone stops by.
- Whether you work from home or go to an office, take a break and interact with friends, family or nature during the workday, try to do so without technology. The world won’t end if you don’t look at that text or answer an email during your break. Ask your friends to do the same if they are “phubbing” you. Set and stick to your boundaries. My day today started with an IM, “Didn’t you get my text message last night?” No. My phone was on the charger.
- Start accepting invitations or create new ones of your own to expand your circle. If you keep rejecting invites, it may be harder to re-establish these connections later. Friends invited me to a group activity that I had just done a few weeks before with my family. I really had to force myself to go, and am glad I did. Being outside and not staring at a computer screen was a refreshing change for my eyes, mind and spirit. I learned things about newer members of the group, strengthening connections. Plus, there are the health benefits of being active and laughing.
- If you work in an office or other location outside the home, engage in company activities that bring people together, and focus on building friendships. This strategy is not only good for your career, it is good for business.
- In the community, get involved in something you care about that does not center on technology. Examples include helping Habitat for Humanity build homes for struggling families or volunteering at the local animal shelter (dog and cat cuddles are free!). There are always events going on that need volunteers for a variety of tasks. Put yourself in the path of something new where you will meet people.
At the beginning of the year, I shared with my friends that I value our relationship and want to focus more energy on our shared interests and fun activities, admitting I had become somewhat of a hermit over COVID. For the more introverted, these steps may be daunting at first. But once you push through the hesitancy, socializing and being more active away from your phone, social media and the internet can become a healthy routine and truly change your life for the better.