The Lonely Crowd – The Future of Wellbeing in a More Connected World

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Social isolation in our digitally connected world is emerging as a public health problem.

The Canada Beyond 150 Wellbeing team observed a paradox of early twenty-first century life: as we become more connected digitally, we seem to become more disconnected socially. And the isolation correlated with our fixation on screens is making us more prone to experience mood disorders and mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and, the most common, loneliness.

Loneliness is not a condition to be treated lightly. It is thought to raise the risk of mortality as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can lead to more severe psychiatric disorders, problematic substance use, and even suicide. It may be that adolescents are particularly susceptible to the emotional and resultant physical harms posed by their ubiquitous screens and devices. The following chart suggests a relationship, among adolescents, between widespread smartphone use and an increase over time in their feelings of loneliness and being left out.

More teenagers are feeling lonely and left out since the advent of smartphones

Screens are also affecting in-person relationships. Participants discussed the phenomenon of “absent presence” in which people are physically present but inattentive to others. Parents’ use of screens around very young children can affect healthy attachment to parents and later to others. In addition, when children use screens excessively, it seems to hinder their ability to read emotions. Engagement with social media, online gaming, dating and pornography are emerging as complicating factors for adult relationships as well.

Tech and social media companies are not always helping. They are researching and applying new addictive elements into their products through gamification. Screen addiction appears to be real, not merely a metaphor. Extreme exposure to digital mobile devices and other screens produces a condition that resembles the mood and behaviour-altering features of drug use. A shot of dopamine, anyone? Just pick up your phone.

And yet: when used mindfully and in moderation, our devices can be powerful tools to connect us and enhance our wellbeing. Smartphones enable us to reach people in far-flung places, access relevant information, participate in broad cultures and niche interests, and organize and enhance in-person connections. Digital devices are especially useful in helping marginalized youths find peers and role models, and experiment with identities and boundaries.

Hence the paradox.

The Way Forward—A Public Health Approach

So what should Canada do? The Canada Beyond 150 team on the future of wellbeing suggests that government cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. The phenomenon of digitally connected loneliness could spread and intensify. Wearable devices and self-driving cars will likely swell the hours we spend immersed in digital or hybrid environments. And virtual reality promises—or threatens, depending on your outlook—to further blur the boundary between real and virtual.

The team proposes that Canada take a public-health approach to the issue. This strategy is not as unorthodox or dramatic as it might sound at first. The federal government’s programs to convince Canadians to quit smoking, start exercising and improve their eating habits could be guides for prompting mindful digital behaviour of Canadians.

Investing in Fundamental Research

The challenge is to determine what a public health approach to digital could look like. The first step is research—and lots of it. Research into our use of screens is still in its infancy, so conclusions remain correlational rather than causal. We need to monitor more closely and widely the digital habits and health of young people especially, and explore ways to respond to our findings. We also need to identify best practices to improve digital habits, and blunt the addictive qualities of our screens and the antisocial behaviour they encourage.

The next move could be to step into the real world. The team recommended annual regional youth summits to bring together young people and digital health experts—in real life. The summits would help experts update and upgrade their qualitative research about how kids and teens use and experience ever-evolving digital media. And they would make it possible for young people to inform policies and help develop health campaigns and curricula for schools and service organizations.

Guidelines could also help. A digital health campaign could encourage parents of very young children to model healthy screen use and to make good decisions about their children’s interactions with screens, on the model of the Canada Food Guide.

The lonely crowd is growing, but its rise doesn’t have to be inevitable. A public health approach could help Canadians to be resilient, connect, and flourish.

“We must frame a health-focused approach to digital media. Canadians could learn digital media health skills much as they learn about diet, sleep, exercise and hygiene.”


Read the team’s full report