As you may know, I am a believer that technology can help us keep in touch, especially if, like me, you have relocated and aren’t geographically close to some of your closest friends and family members. I was reading the article today about Australian nursing home residents and other elderly people, and the use of technology to help alleviate some of the loneliness because of their inability to get out and be mobile, were, I believe, proof that they can help us, especially in between visits.
But, that doesn’t mean they are the one and only answer to loneliness. It’s more complicated than that
It is important to be clear that technology on its own does not solve loneliness.
If it doesn’t enable meaningful social interactions, it can even have the reverse effect.
Care home resident Chris told me he didn’t get any replies to messages he’d sent through a communication app to his family and friends. The technology made him more aware of his loneliness.
We need to reject “techno-solutionism”, or the idea that technology by itself will fix all our social problems.
Technology that allows us to communicate across the miles is a great thing, provided there is someone actually out there communicating with us. It’s easy to assume that someone we care about is on Facebook, and seems to be connecting with old friends, surely they’re fine, right? Not necessarily. If the technology isn’t creating any kind of meaningful connection, then no, it’s not helping their loneliness. It might even be making it worse.
It reminds me a great deal about how we think about nursing homes, or assisted living facilities. We like to think that our loved ones are involved in the community there, making friends, going to activities, having meaningful interactions. After all, they are among a large community, so they don’t need our interactions as much. The truth is, some of them are doing that, and some of them aren’t. Some of them have not gotten involved, or they’ve not fit in well, and now they are surrounded by other people, and lonelier than ever. We can’t make any assumptions, we need to check in on them ourselves.
The same holds true for kids at school, or young people who’ve gone off to college or even adults in the workplace. Yes, for some, they are involved, busy, and happy. For others, not so much, and they require some meaningful interactions from outside of that community to keep them going.
Technology is the same way. Just handing someone a messaging app, and a social network, doesn’t automatically equal meaningful connections. Make sure that person you care about is not lonely. Don’t assume that they proximity to an online or offline community means they aren’t lonely, and if you are using technology, use it to truly connect with the people you need support from. Don’t broadcast your filtered life to Instagram and call it connection. Actually interact, actually reach out to people.
Some of the loneliest times of my life were when there were plenty of people around, but no one I was truly connecting with.
We need those connections. It’s bad for our mental health to be so lonely. Yet, even with all the ways we have to communicate, we are.
That’s not the fault of technology. That’s what we like to call in the tech industry, “user error”.