EDITORIAL: Loneliness more than a bad feeling

·3 min read

May 10—The latest pandemic is here: loneliness.

That's the analysis from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who recently issued an advisory warning Americans that loneliness is more than a "bad feeling."

The lack of social connection can lead to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death, Murthy cites.

While we sit alone in our homes with only the blue light of a computer damaging our retinal cells, should we accept Murthy's advisory?

To verify his concern, the 81-page advisory titled "Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation" was peer-reviewed by 49 experts and contains 325 footnotes. So, this isn't just one expert's opinion.

First, the reasons for our collective loneliness.

At-risk groups include people with poor health, disabilities, financial woes and single parents living alone. However, while older adults have the highest rates of social isolation, young adults are twice as likely to report feeling lonely than those over 65.

Technology doesn't help us connect as we once did when we knew our neighbors and held family get-togethers. Nearly all teens and adults under 65, between 96% and 99% of them, and 75% of adults 65 and over, say that they use the internet. One-in-three U.S. adults 18 and over report that they are online "almost constantly."

But this might be of the most concern for our future connectivity: The percentage of teens ages 13 to 17 years old who say they are online "almost constantly" has doubled since 2015.

While some uses of technology are beneficial, the harms can include diminished self-esteem as we compare our lives to those success stories we find online. Social media can monopolize our attention and make in-person family gatherings seem dull.

The advisory recommends practical solutions.

Parents and caregivers can model social connectivity by staying in regular contact with family and encouraging their children to have social interaction with other youth. To quote directly from the advisory: "Delay the age at which children join social media platforms and monitor and decrease screen time in favor of positive, in-person, connection building activities."

Technology companies can prioritize social health and safety in their designs. Be honest and open in the effects, negative and positive, that data and programs have on users. Be age appropriate.

Individually, we can nurture relationships by reaching out to a friend each day and avoid checking our phones while in the middle of a conversation. We can participate in social or community groups. Seek help when struggling with loneliness.

Murthy's advisory is fascinating in that it combines hundreds of studies to confirm what we suspect. We are isolating ourselves into a corner by working alone, avoiding family connections and diverting our attentions to not-so-social media.

To quote Murthy's goal:

"We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation. It will take all of us — individuals and families, schools and workplaces, health care and public health systems, technology companies, governments, faith organizations, and communities — working together to destigmatize loneliness and change our cultural and policy response to it."

Let's heed his call.