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How Smartphones are Contributing to the Loneliness Epidemic

We all walk around with tiny computers in our pockets that can connect us with people all over the globe. We should be more connected to other people than ever, right?

Actually, loneliness is rising, and may overtake obesity as the epidemic threatening most Americans, according to the AARP’s Loneliness Study. The study states that almost 43 million adults 45 and older across the U.S. are estimated to be victims of chronic loneliness, a condition that can lead to depression, and even premature death.

The older generations aren’t the only ones affected. Even teenagers are physically interacting less with each other. Perhaps the very thing designed to bring us closer together is a factor in this issue.

Are Smartphones Contributing to this Issue?

The relationship between smartphone usage and loneliness has started to amass a significant amount of research. One 2015 study from the Social Science Computer Review found a correlation between smartphone usage and loneliness in college students. Another 2017 study from the Korean Society of Nursing Science found a significant correlation between attachment anxiety, loneliness, depression and smartphone addiction.

This link is perhaps most obvious when looking at smartphone usage in teenagers. According to an article in The Atlantic by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, as smartphone usage became more ubiquitous, a rapid, strong change in teenage behavior occurred.

These changes start in 2012, when about 50% of Americans owned smartphones. The group born between 1995 and 2012, a group she dubbed iGen, is markedly different from previous generations due to the increase in smartphones and social media.

Physically, teenagers are now safer, as they tend to stay in their rooms and avoid parties and drinking. However, the rates of teenage depression and suicide have significantly increased since 2011. Teenagers spending three or more hours per day on electronics have a 35% higher chance of a suicide risk factor, and eighth graders using social media frequently have a 27% higher risk of depression, according to Twenge.

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” Twenge wrote.

Parental screen time is also an issue. In a Washington Post article, psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair addresses the alarming amount of adults who also spend too much time on their phones. She tells the Post that many children she treats feel disconnected from their parents, and feel they are less important or fun than their parents’ phones.

“Instead of looking to your spouse, or kids, or best friend or people you would have conversations with daily, most of us look at our phones and see who needs me or who is interested in me,” Steiner-Adair said. “It’s kind of hard to resist, yet chances are we really matter most to the people we just put on hold to check the phone.”

How Loneliness Can Cause Health Problems

Humans are social creatures. The need to interact with others is so inherently necessary that the absence of social connection puts your brain into self-preservation mode, much like hunger or physical pain, says John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience in an interview with Fortune.

Social media and online dating websites have widened opportunities for creating relationships, and soothing loneliness, but only if you use them as a jumping off point for real-life interaction.

For people that use it as a replacement for that crucial face-to-face interaction, it can increase loneliness.

According to Cacioppo, loneliness is bad for your mental and physical health. Chronic loneliness can contribute to depression, and a meta-analysis of 3 million people revealed that loneliness upped the odds of dying early by 26% through several related mechanisms such as:

  • Higher blood pressure
  • Higher levels of cortisol
  • Less sleep
  • Altered gene-expression

“People aren’t dying of loneliness,” Cacioppo said, “but they are dying of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, accidents, suicide and diabetes. Based on your genetics and your environmental history, loneliness can make these conditions strike earlier than they otherwise would have.”

Conversely, another meta-analysis presented by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, shows that being connected with others can reduce the risk of early death by 50%.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of that risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” Holt-Lunstad said in an American Psychology Association article. “With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only expected to increase… the challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”

Ways to Combat the Loneliness

Instituting tech-free zones and times for kids can help decrease smartphone usage. Twenge recommended in a 2017 interview with NPR to install “apps that allow parents to restrict the number of hours a day that teens are on the smartphone, and also what time of day they use it.”

Adults should also consider setting time limits for being on the phone. Checking it compulsively throughout the day just exacerbates the problem, especially with younger generations.

“Kids don’t need our undivided attention all the time, but they need to know that they matter to us and that there are certain times of the day and certain situations where they have our attention,” Steiner-Adair said.

Larry Rosen, psychologist and professor emeritus at California State University, said in a 2016 interview with NPR that weaning yourself by taking increasingly long breaks from technology can help. Modeling good behavior for your children can also help too – showing children when it’s important to have face-to-face communication, as opposed to online, is important. “Show you need to be able to go to someone face to face to resolve relationships difficulties.”

Using social media for the right reasons may help beat the feeling of loneliness. Many networking sites, like MeetUp.com, exist to give people a chance to meet in real life and to form new friendships. Cacioppo said that “if you use social networking as a way to promote face-to-face conversation, it lowers loneliness.”

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