While we have been battling a global Covid-19 epidemic, another epidemic has been brewing. A loneliness epidemic. According to a Harvard research study conducted by Making Caring Common in February 2021, 36% of all Americans feel “serious loneliness”. Not surprisingly, this marks a significant rise since the spread of the Covid-19 virus. And it’s not just in America. In an international study lead by experts from the Institute of Public Health in Dublin, Ulster University, and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin, 21% of participants reported experiencing “severe loneliness” between 2 June to 16 November 2020. While we might suppose that older generations are most likely to experience loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic – with increased levels of health vulnerability and lower levels of digital literacy – the rise in loneliness has been most marked in younger individuals.
Loneliness is, no doubt, unpleasant. But isn’t it a touch melodramatic, even insensitive, to be deeming it an epidemic? In short, no. The Campaign to End Loneliness states that loneliness is one of the most prominent contemporary health concerns and links loneliness to rises in cognitive decline, dementia, and risk of death. Notably, loneliness is associated with mental health issues – loneliness is thought to both increase the onset of mental health disorders and individuals with mental health disorders are thought to be more vulnerable to experiencing severe loneliness. Loneliness is even considered to be a common feature of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
On the surface, it seems obvious that the Covid-19 pandemic drives loneliness. Lockdowns, social distancing, education moving online, and working from home transformed many of our social activities into solo ones or displaced them from the physical world to the digital one. Old social routines and styles of interaction were disrupted and altered. And even as the world has opened up, worries about infection and vulnerability, uncertainty about future lockdowns, and broader feelings of social awkwardness and hesitancy continue to shadow us.
In a world where we can digitally connect with one another with ease, without needing to be physically together, why is loneliness catching?
This rise in loneliness raises an interesting question: In a world where we can digitally connect with one another with ease, without needing to be physically together, why is loneliness catching? Here, I explore how philosophy can help us understand what loneliness is and consider how the internet can both drive and alleviate loneliness.
What is loneliness?
We all know what it is to feel lonely (with the exception of one of my friends, who swears he has never experienced loneliness). But what is it? Tom Roberts and Joel Krueger (2021) have recently suggested that loneliness is an emotional experience of absence. Where homesickness involves missing one’s home, loneliness is an experience that involves missing certain “social goods”.
Some social goods can be gained from quite casual forms of interactions with others – such as friendly remarks exchanged with a neighbour, a shared joke with a customer, or a reciprocated head-nod with a passing pedestrian. But they also include richer forms of social connection, such as intimate, or even romantic, friendships and partnerships, physical contact, moral and emotional support and sympathy, and feelings of belonging, being seen and understood.
When a person feels the absence of casual everyday interactions, they might feel disconnected from those around them, awkward, or self-conscious. When richer social goods are missing, a person might feel more deeply alone, unsupported, unable to thrive and grow as a person. It is not necessarily that these social goods are absent in a particular moment, like when I am eating breakfast alone at home. Indeed, many people take pleasure in being alone. It is that they are experienced as absent, as missing from one’s world, as being impossible to attain. Hence why one can feel lonely in a room full of people. It is not that there are no people to connect with but that the possibility of satisfying and meaningful connection is experienced as not possible, as peculiarly out of reach.
Hence why one can feel lonely in a room full of people. It is not that there are no people to connect with but that the possibility of satisfying and meaningful connection is experienced as not possible, as peculiarly out of reach.
Loneliness can be experienced in different degrees and intensities. I might experience a fleeting pang of loneliness if I have not had any social interaction all day or a deep loneliness when I have moved to a new city and do not have access to the support and love of a friendship group. When loneliness endures, it can leave us feeling hopeless and profoundly disconnected from those around us.
Feeling lonely also impacts how we experience being in the world. As the Japanese philosopher Tetsurō Watsuji (1996) remarks, when we feel known the world feels smaller, more comfortable. Our connections to others can make the world feel more manageable. We might even say that our social connections help ground us, tie us to the world around us. When we feel unknown, the world feels large and sprawling. When our social connections disappear, we experience our own smallness in a vast world. Loneliness can make us feel peculiarly cut adrift from the world and others.
What can be tricky about loneliness is that although it might be an experience of the absence of certain social goods, social goods often cannot be provided by just anyone (particularly those we describe as ‘rich social goods’). When feeling the absence of intimate friendship, this does not mean that I necessarily want the companionship, care, or moral support of any person. I want it from a person (or people) that I like, that I feel an affinity with, that I care about too. We typically want a friendship that is stable and trustworthy – not a transient friendship but one that persists through time. While social goods might on their surface sound like a general category, their fulfilment is often quite specific.
As Covid-19 restrictions came into place our access to many social goods was inhibited…. So, we reached for our phones, tablets, and laptops.
As Covid-19 restrictions came into place our access to many social goods was inhibited. We could no longer visit old friends and family, no longer hug people in greeting, masks and social distancing restricted even our more casual social habits. And many of us felt this absence acutely. So, we reached for our phones, tablets, and laptops.
Digital spaces of loneliness
The internet seems like an inherently social place – offering numerous platforms for chatting and sharing with, commenting on, and watching and listening to others. Yet, the internet has a bad rep when it comes to sociality. Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together (2017), draws attention to the swaths of individuals who feel that their large digital social networks leave them feeling disconnected and alone. She argues that while technology might increase the quantity of our social ties, the quality of those ties is weaker than when we are with people face-to-face. According to Turkle, not only does technology sell us a poor replacement for physical togetherness, our preoccupation with our phones, laptops, and tablets disrupts and damages the time we do spend together with others offline.
Applying our loneliness framework, we might worry that the internet can only provide us with relatively shallow social goods. Sharing memes on Twitter, likes on Facebook, and watching TikTok videos may well provide the kind of social satisfaction that we gain through casual interactions with our neighbours, café customers, and fellow travellers. But we might be sceptical about digital interactions really being able to provide us with the richer social goods of companionship, close friendship, empathetic support, and romance. The very design of certain social media platforms seems to make them lonely spaces. Short text-based Tweets that simultaneously broadcast to everyone and no-one, quick emotes, and a fast-moving home feed may promote shallow forms of interaction may simply be poor tools for cultivating intimate companionship and care.
Sprawling social platforms like Twitter might feel akin to a large, unfamiliar city. While there is no shortage of people, the presence of large numbers of strangers might make us feel small, insignificant, and lost. The sheer number of people present can feel overwhelming. A new user on Twitter might find themselves in a huge world of strangers chattering and feel their own voice getting lost in the noise.
Sprawling social platforms like Twitter might feel akin to a large, unfamiliar city. While there is no shortage of people, the presence of large numbers of strangers might make us feel small, insignificant, and lost.
Not knowing the relevant social etiquette for interacting with others can also drive the feeling of being lonely– think of being in a new culture, where we are unsure how to approach people, do not know the ‘rules’ of friendship. Exposing ourselves to digital worlds, where social norms may be different and even ambiguous, might heighten our sense of not being a capable social participant and making various social goods feel even further out of our reach.
The quantification of social goods on social media platforms can also scaffold feelings of loneliness. When our social connections are presented to us in numerical form, we are presented with a way in which to judge our social success. Seeing that I have fewer followers and fewer likes than my new colleague might make me doubt my own connectedness to others. Our competency as a social participant can be threated by the seeming proficiency of others online and such blatant quantification makes comparison an easy hole to fall into. In turn, by quantifying our social connections, platforms nudge (and even manipulate us) to chase large numbers of loose connections (such as followers or likes) instead of deeper forms of social connection. We are encouraged to pursue quantity over quality, which can leave our need for richer social goods unfulfilled.
In a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, where our physical contact with others is severely restricted, it might seem inevitable that relying on the internet to fill the ‘social gap’ will leave us vulnerable to loneliness. The vast spaces of social media platforms might be intimidating and, even for the habitual user, designed in ways that do not appear to allow us to forge and sustain deep social connections. Indeed, there are even social goods – such as physical contact – that are impossible (at least based on current technology) to obtain via online communication. What is more, if technology promises to keep us connected, the absence of rich connection might be experienced as particularly potent, exacerbating our feelings of loneliness.
Digital spaces of intimacy
But things aren’t quite this simple…. Members of online gaming communities describe how rich friendship and bonds can be developed in Massively Multiplayer Online games. Finding a queer space online might be a lifeline of support and understanding for someone who (physically) lives in a homophobic area.
But things aren’t quite this simple. While many online interactions certainly do look relatively shallow, there are people and communities that report rich feelings of connectedness and belonging online. Members of online gaming communities describe how rich friendship and bonds can be developed in Massively Multiplayer Online games. Finding a queer space online might be a lifeline of support and understanding for someone who (physically) lives in a homophobic area. Seeing other people talk about their own struggles with mental health can make us feel less alone with our own difficulties. People fall in love online, sustain friendships across geographic distances, attend gigs together, and can co-create art and music on digital platforms. We can even use technology to carve out spaces of connection when physically together. Think of how we might text with our best friend in a large lecture hall, creating a sense of connection with one another that the others around us are not party to.
How can we make sense of these conflicting reports about online sociality, connection, and loneliness? First is to note that the internet is not a homogenous space. It provides access to multiple social platforms. This is often downplayed or not mentioned by critics such as Turkle. But it is important to highlight because the internet, like the offline world, offers many different styles of social interaction on its different social platforms. These enable various forms of social encounters that offer different kinds of social goods.
Some digital spaces are better set up to give us access to particular social goods than others – Instagram stories might be good for sustaining our feeling of knowing what is going on in our friends’ lives, while instant messaging allows us to ask for and give words of encouragement and support to our loved ones, and TikTok might grant us access to a new community that we might not have access to in the town in which we live. These different encounters not only involve engaging with different social content but can alter the breadth of the audience involved (e.g., all our followers or specific individuals), as well as the temporal structure of our engagement (e.g., real-time engagement or not). If we are sensitive about what social goods we are looking for, we might tailor where we look for them online.
Second is to think more specifically about how we find or construct spaces of intimacy that support deeper forms of social connection. Just walking out into a wide world full of others is typically not enough. We often foster spaces of intimacy through ‘narrowing down’. This can either be through a narrowing down of the sheer number of people – we are more likely to pick a cosy café than a busy street to engage with someone when looking for companionship or support. Or through a narrowing down of the kinds of people we might find in a social space or the kinds of activity we might engage in there – going to a climbing gym to find other climbers or to a reading group in the hope of finding people who share the same aesthetic taste as me. Or by heading straight for people that we already know and love.
Online, if I want to meet people who share my interests, I might find a particular corner of Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter. If I want to actively ‘do’ things with other people, I might play Elder Scrolls with my gamer friends, play a boardgame on Steam with my family, or attend an online choir on Zoom. If I want to enjoy the quiet company of my sister, I might have her on Duo on my tablet throughout the day. If I want to get to know someone better who I have met on Twitter, I might slide into their DMs. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s oft-stated desire to throw us all together online and create a kind of "frictionless sharing" where we share nearly every aspect of ourselves online in real-time in a public way, most of us don’t actually want that. We want curated spaces (e.g., closed forums, communities, subreddits, private chat groups, etc.) that facilitate richer and more selective forms of engagement – engagements that make us feel known, understood, and seen not just by anyone but the people we care about.
Bringing these thoughts together, our social lives are complicated and textured, involving lots of different types of social ties with other people – families, old friends, new friends, romantic and sexual partners, gym buddies, work colleagues, casual acquaintances – that we do different things with and that provide us with different social goods. We should expect our social lives online to equally textured if we want them to provide us with multiple kinds of social goods. Predominately using one online platform, for instance, for all our social needs might be a recipe for trouble.
Taking care with connection
The internet can indeed create spaces of loneliness, where we feel disconnected from the social world, but that it can also be used to create spaces of intimacy. Spaces of sociality aren’t uniform. It matters what we want from them, how we use them, and who is in them.
The internet can indeed create spaces of loneliness, where we feel disconnected from the social world, but that it can also be used to create spaces of intimacy. Spaces of sociality aren’t uniform. It matters what we want from them, how we use them, and who is in them. Whether we are offline or online, if we want to protect ourselves from being lonely, we must think about what kinds of connection we need with others and how best we can cultivate them. Part of the reason that people might often feel lonely online is that they lack access to spaces of intimacy online, as well as the necessary digital literacy to use and negotiate them. If the internet is going to be a resource for alleviating loneliness, we need to address these issues. This is, of course, not a quick fix for all loneliness. But taking care with how we connect is something that applies just as much when we are online as offline.
Lucy Osler is a philosophy lecturer at Cardiff University. She specialises in the philosophy of sociality, embodiment, emotions, and technology. She is particularly interested in exploring how we encounter other people in digital spaces and how we might use philosophy to inform how we use and design social technology.