How the U.S. surgeon general wants to repair a culture of isolation

Vivek Murthy warns about solitude and social media.

Dr. Vivek Murthy stands at a podium with microphones.
Dr. Vivek Murthy at a pediatric COVID-19 vaccination clinic in McLean, Va., in 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
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During the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy did not exactly emerge as one of the nation’s more prominent public health officials, despite the high status of his position.

Serious and soft-spoken, Murthy was frequently eclipsed on cable news and social media by the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top pandemic adviser, and Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic response team coordinator.

But as the pandemic has subsided, Murthy has become increasingly vocal about the concerns that he first expressed in his 2020 book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”

Published just weeks after the nation went into lockdown, “Together” seems geared toward a post-pandemic world, one in which the virus itself has receded for many people as a health concern, while the psychological challenges wrought by the pandemic have grown only more pronounced.

In recent weeks, Murthy has issued two notable advisories that seek to address a culture of cultural isolation fostered by an increasing reliance on the internet. While the work he outlines is far beyond the scope of a single office, Murthy’s focus represents what is likely to be a top concern for medical professionals and policymakers in the years to come.

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The lonely American

"Ted Lasso" star Jason Sudeikis, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and his fellow cast members, at a press briefing on March 20 to discuss the importance of addressing mental health to promote overall well-being. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
"Ted Lasso" star Jason Sudeikis, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and his fellow cast members, at a press briefing on March 20 to discuss the importance of addressing mental health to promote overall well-being. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health,” Murthy writes in a new advisory issued earlier this month, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

The 82-page document is a frank acknowledgement that American adults have fewer and fewer meaningful relationships outside immediate family and work — and that the lack of those relationships has serious health harms, roughly akin to those of being a habitual smoker.

The lack of social connection, Murthy writes, is making Americans “angry, sick, and alone.” And if social networks were already being disrupted by economic, social and other forces before the pandemic took hold in 2020, lockdowns, school closures and the rise of remote work have only exacerbated the crisis.

Murthy calls for policymakers, business leaders and health care professionals to foster a “culture of connection” that treats chronic, unwanted solitude as a disease. Whether they will take heed remains an open question.

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Beyond the screen

Ninth grader Alani Rodriguez Martinez sitting at a desk, looking at a computer.
Ninth grader Alani Rodriguez Martinez attends a virtual class in Louisville, Ky., in January 2022. (Amira Karaoud/Reuters)

Social habits don’t arise spontaneously but, rather, are shaped by the values a society imparts to young adults.

In a second May advisory, titled “Social Media and Youth Mental Health,” Murthy says that an increasing reliance on social media is leading young adults to experience low self-esteem, as well as symptoms related to anxiety and depressive disorders. Social media platforms also routinely expose adolescents to inappropriate and dangerous content.

Murthy describes a study of 10,000 14-year-olds that “found that greater social media use predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem, and higher depressive symptom scores with a larger association for girls than boys.”

While the 45-year-old surgeon general and father of two acknowledges that social media platforms can foster the “ability to form and maintain friendships online,” he strongly suggests that we have not done enough to consider the harms of a heavily digital existence, a trend that was accelerated by the pandemic, when millions of children attended school and even summer camp online.

“Our children and adolescents don’t have the luxury of waiting years until we know the full extent of social media’s impact,” he writes. But the popularity of platforms like TikTok suggests that a neat policy solution is out of reach.

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An uncertain future

Danny Reagan sits in a common room at the Lindner Center of Hope in Mason, Ohio.
Danny Reagan, a former residential patient of the Lindner Center of Hope in Mason, Ohio, in January 2019. (Maddie McGarvey/Reuters)

The number of stressors on the lives of Americans can seem overwhelming. From the cost of child care to the crisis of global warming, the kind of inner peace that is essential to mental well-being can be difficult to find, especially for people who lack the means to take a vacation or even a few days off work.

The rise of artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT could act as an accelerant, potentially deepening social divisions while also displacing large segments of the workforce.

One answer: helping others. Recent studies have found that volunteerism can improve mental health, while also repairing some small piece of a fractured, broken world.

“Service is a powerful antidote to loneliness,” Murthy recently said.

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