Britain is currently facing a loneliness epidemic, with 1 in 4 UK adults saying they often or always feel lonely (Economist, 2018).
Words by MICHAEL BARRETT-WRIGHT
The significance of loneliness on not only mental, but also physical health cannot be understated – according to experts, the impact of loneliness on health exceeds that of physical inactivity and obesity, and rivals that of smoking and alcohol consumption (Social Finance, 2013). With the percentage of people living alone having increased drastically in the last century (Gillies, 2016), as well as the introduction of social media meaning that we spend increasingly less time having face to face conversations – it’s no wonder people are feeling more lonely than ever. But what is it exactly that determines loneliness?
Surprisingly, it’s not about the amount of friends you have. Studies show that it is not the frequency of social interactions that determine loneliness – it’s the quality (Klinenberg, 2012). Although someone may have frequent, daily social interaction – when these interactions are all surface level, it’s easy to be lonely – and with male suicide being the leading killer of men aged 20-34, we need to find ways to make intimate and meaningful conversation easier and more accessible. This feeling of loneliness is increasingly common in an era of social media – you feel connected, but it’s different to achieve any kind of depth and intimacy to a conversation through a screen. Facebook, Meetup, Tinder – the list of mobile apps and services designed for people to start new friendships and relationships is endless, but due to the ‘disposable’ nature of 21st century friendships, it may actually be harder to make the meaningful and valuable friendships which enable someone to feel understood and valued (Hari, 2018). The unrealistic standards and life expectations set by social media can leave young people in particular disconnected to the reality of life – and in a climate where someone is unable to have honest and intimate conversations with close friends, it’s easy to get lost in the façade and feel as if no one else is experiencing the problems and vulnerabilities that are at the core of being human.
Despite this, technology can also have a positive effect on loneliness and real high quality interaction – nearly 7 in 10 teens report having received support through social media during tough times (RSPH, 2017). Not only this, but the community building aspect of social media means that it’s easier than ever to surround yourself with people who understand you. This is especially the case for minority groups e.g. those in the LGBT community. Despite being a minority in the real world, online communities create a safe space for members of minority groups to feel understood, and to open up and connect with each other, both online and in person. (RSPH, 2017).
Social media is a good tool for creating opportunities for real world social interactions to take place, however when it comes to using social media as a platform for intimate conversation – people tend not to feel that comfortable. Having released a survey shortly before this article was written –95% of respondents were comfortable with having meaningful conversations in person, 45% via instant messaging and video calls fared the worst with only 33%. This is somewhat surprising, as video calls are the closest form of social media interaction to speaking to someone in real life. Perhaps the question that should be asked is therefore not how can we get people to leave the digital world to connect face to face, but instead how can we as designers make it easier for people to genuinely connect digitally?
From a design perspective, creating meaningful real world social interaction is a relatively untouched area. The one example out there of someone tackling this specific issue from a design perspective is ‘The Confessions Game’ by the School of Life. With the help of some cards and a dice, people are prompted have honest conversations about topics and questions that wouldn’t usually come up on a day to day basis. The idea has been gamified which makes it significantly less intimidating to have these conversations, and it works fantastically. Speaking with the head of product design at the School of Life – Emma Gordon – she revealed that the products which actually lead to interaction, were far more popular than anything else in their store. Clearly people are hungry for meaningful social interaction, and this is backed up by survey data – with 79% of respondents saying they would like to have more regular and intimate conversations with friends. In terms of creating more meaningful social interaction digitally – the best examples of this are apps and products for long distance relationships. There are many examples of necklaces or other objects which can mirror the heartbeat of your partner when talking to them, providing a physical sensation so that, despite the distance between you, you still feel connected.
So what does the future hold? It seems highly unlikely that our use of technology will decline in the near future, and so it’s up to us to create environments – whether digital or physical – which promote these kind of interactions and help to reduce loneliness. With the emergence of VR technology, it’s possible that many of our future interactions will not take place face-to-face – the question is, what can we do to make them more human?
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