Is our world slowly becoming a lonelier place?

I’ve been thinking so much about social media, phones, the internet, and all the screen time that has quickly moved into our lives. We have seen so much change so fast, it’s not only our kids that are turning to screens but it’s us too and they are watching what we do. What can we do to be more present while allowing some of these new technologies to have their place in our lives?

Social isolation is on the rise and many people are saying that they have fewer and fewer meaningful relationships.  Many of us may not even be aware that we have fewer meaningful relationships. A study conducted in 2015 by researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that there is an increased likelihood of mortality connected to social isolation, loneliness, and living alone.  Holt-Lunstad also found that loneliness and social isolation are just as bad for our health and longevity as obesity

I see many clients who get sick often or are stuck in negative health patterns. They can start eating healthier and supplementing their diets but often it’s the stress and social isolation that are leading to emotional eating, cravings, mood instability, and poor immune function.

Loneliness and/or social isolation doesn’t just affect the lonely person but can and does have a significant impact on our nation’s public health.  In fact, WHO has recognized a “loneliness epidemic” and researchers on the subject are advocating that government put actions into place in order to address the issue.  A survey done by Cigna Health found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.  And only around half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions.

Do you think spending time on our phones and social media has anything to do with this?  How often do your kids, a friend, or a coworker have to wait for you to “just finish something up real quick” on a screen?  

Despite many studies showing that older generations are experiencing the most loneliness and social isolation, the Cigna survey found that Generation Z (which is adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations!  As much as I want to blame everything on social media and screen time right now, we know that there are other causes, and the Cigna survey showed that social media use alone is not the only predictor of loneliness. 

There is, of course, more to it and you may know from some of my other articles how what you eat, individual food sensitivities, and inflammation can really affect mood and social interaction too.  Adding to that, physical and emotional trauma, brain injury, bullying can surely lead to withdrawal and social isolation too. 

I can admit that perhaps social media does have its place if we learn how to use it right, set limits, and avoid overuse. In a recent article put out by Psycom.net, it was stated that social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, can add to our vitality if used to keep in touch with friends HOWEVER it can increase the feeling of loneliness and inadequacy if used as a substitute for real connectionEven my 12 year old daughter has noticed close friends drift away after getting their first phone.  And is texting taking the place of reaching out and having a conversation?

It’s pretty obvious from the research that we have a big problem on our hands.  But, how do we reverse the issue? How do we increase community and social engagement?

First, let’s take a step back and look at why this is all so important in the first place.  

I know many people who outwardly say that they love their “alone time” and I’m sure you have come across blogs and articles that stress the importance of “me time”.  If being alone and making time for oneself is so important, why is social isolation having such a negative impact?  

Simply put, despite us liking some occasional “alone time”, we are wired for social connection.  Also we need to look at the quality of our alone time. Are we staying in the present moment, enjoying outside time, hobbies, exercise, or reading? Or are we lost in the internet and social media? In an interview with Scientific American, researcher and author of the book “Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect”, Matthew Lieberman states that “the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.  When this happens in childhood it can lead to long-term health and educational problems. We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.

If social connection is so fundamental to our health and well-being, then why is social isolation and loneliness on the rise? 

Although it may not sound convincing, a study conducted in 2009 using data from the famous Framingham Heart Study concluded that loneliness is contagious.  Yes, you read that correctly. Further, the study found that the spread of loneliness is stronger than the spread of perceived social connections and is stronger for friends than family, and women than for men.  

The more well known reason for our increase in social isolation is, of course, the internet!   Although social platforms can help alleviate social anxiety and loneliness, excessive internet use actually increase feelings of loneliness over time. And using the internet to interact with friends and family are not as effective as “in real life” connection is for feelings of loneliness. 

Since the advent of social media, many studies have been done on the connection between social media use and mental health and have found that increased social media use is connected with higher rates of depression, lower self-esteem, and loneliness.  

Melissa Hunt, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found that both loneliness and depressive symptoms declined when social media use was limited.  And by limited, she had experimental groups using social media apps for no more than 10 minutes per day, per app, for a full three weeks. The declines were seen across people of varying levels of depression and loneliness, showing that even those of us who feel we are not “that” affected by social media may notice an improvement in our mental health from putting our phones down!

The idea that the internet/social media plays a role in the trend towards loneliness is obvious to you right?

For those of us who lived in the era before iPhones were so popular, and before social media and the internet took off, social isolation was still a problem but not so much with teens and young adults. Instead it used to be a concern that was connected mostly to the elderly and as I stated above, those suffering from brain trauma, emotional trauma, abuse, and bullying. 

For example, I had my own experiences with social withdrawal and social isolation after a car accident that gave me a major concussion which resulted in brain trauma back in 1997. I remember not only wanting to be alone but struggling in social situations for several years as well. I just felt awkward around other people and preferred my alone time. This is a whole other area that can be discussed on the topic so I’ll be sure to share my full story and discuss brain trauma in another post. 

The truth is that everyone feels lonely from time to time so how do you know when it has become a problem?

Long periods of loneliness and social withdrawal can impact your mental and physical health, leading to depression and anxiety.  Some of the physical signs may include fatigue, aches and pains, getting sick often, worsening of current health conditions, weight gain, and sleep disturbances. 

As I step back and take a look at my own habits involving the internet, phone, and social media I notice right away how it removes me from the present.  I give less attention to my kids, missing precious face-to-face time with them, my hobbies get the back seat, and I miss out on quality time that I could be spending with friends and loved ones. And there is no doubt that the more my kids see me using a screen, the more they want to do it and feel it’s okay!

Now let’s go back to the question of what we can do to turn social isolation around. 

An article on social isolation in Psychology Today states that the reason our social networks are so important for our health and happiness is because the support we receive from our close ties can help decrease the burden of stress on our brains and bodies.  

Furthermore, when we increase our social networks or our access to them, we can actually change the way our brains work with regards to making decisions.  Being around others helps us improve our mental skills which ultimately benefits us in the long term.

Six Tips to Help Improve Social Connection and Build Community

Rather than just stating the depressing statistics and research around social isolation, I want to share some practical tips with you to start improving social connection and building your own community:

    1. Prioritize face-to-face interactions and connect during those interactions.  There is just something in us that gets more out of “in real life” time with others than just electronic or telephone connection.  More so, it’s not just being around each other physically, but also forming an intimate relationship where each side feels comfortable sharing and getting to know the other.
    2. Volunteer. Volunteering allows you to pursue and support something that is important to you while gaining the benefits from interacting with others. It’s a double benefit because as you reap the benefits of giving, you also make new connections, both of which can lift your mood and increase joy.
    3. Decrease your use of social media. Set yourself a daily time limit. As you saw from the study above, decreasing social media use – even among those with low levels of loneliness – can have a positive impact.  Ideally, you’ll replace the social media with in-person interaction but even if you don’t, at least you are moving away from the comparison trap that often happens when we scroll through our feeds.  This alone can help tame feelings of FOMO (aka: “fear of missing out”) and inadequacy. 
    4. Share your meals with others. I’m not saying to give half of the food on your plate away, I mean “eat with others”, meaning try to avoid eating alone often, prioritize daily family sit down meals, reach out to your friends and have lunch together.  Taking this time allows for sharing and bonding both which feels really good.
    5. Show your gratitude. We are quickly losing the days of writing thank you letters and spending time to write real letters to friends and family. Don’t forget to show your appreciation and say thanks when someone takes time to do nice things. Just as important is for you to reach out and show extra kindness and support for the people in your life. Cooking for others is a great way to do this, so is picking up the phone and calling someone you care about. 
    6. Partner up and exercise. Go for a walk with someone. You may already know how important exercise is for your health; it helps balance hormones, improves metabolic functions, and makes you feel good, but some of us still don’t make it a priority. Make a plan to exercise with a friend or family member. Not only can this get you out more but you also get the face-to-face communication while you work out. Both of which can improve your health!  

As busy as we all are, it still is the little things in life that mean the most. Sometimes my husband gives me a hard time for prioritizing holiday traditions and taking the time to do all the cute little things for my family and talk about the meaning behind it. This time of year we are making wreaths, baking lots of low carb, grain free goodies for our neighbors (and ourselves of course), giving toys to those in need, and getting in lots of quality time as a family. Hey that’s what shows the love, it’s not the movie you let them watch, the video games they get to play, or even the presents they get, it’s real time connection, sharing, listening, and just being present!

Empathy really goes a long way because when it comes down to it we all just want to be understood. Screen time, social media, the internet,…. These are all changing so fast and becoming such large parts of our lives. Our kids will turn towards social media searching for this understanding, for others to connect with, but we know they won’t find it there…at least not in the way they will find it in real life!. 

Also, you know your kids will do what they see you do. If you are on your phone often at home, answering texts during dinner, evening reading on your phone (it all looks the same to them), then it’s not surprising how into these things they are becoming. 

As I have started using social media more for promoting my business and show-casing my recipes I have noticed it becoming a real distraction and affecting the amount of attention I give my kids . I am setting myself a time limit and creating guidelines for my own usage. Do you want to do the same?

Implementing some of the steps above can do wonders for your health, vitality, and joy.  It may seem challenging and a little out of your comfort zone but just give it a try and see how your mindset and your mood changes.  On the other hand, if you tend not to isolate yourself are not lonely at all, what can you do to reach out and help someone who might be spending too much time alone and on their screens?

Sources:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691614568352

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150311160521.htm

https://academic.oup.com/ppar/article/27/4/127/4782506

https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america

https://www.psycom.net/how-social-media-increases-loneliness/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792572/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563213003063

https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fine-tuning-human-performance/201807/wired-connect)

https://drhyman.com/blog/2018/04/05/how-to-build-stronger-connections/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-art-closeness/201509/the-7-habits-socially-connected-people