Loneliness is the silent pandemic

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Isolation has only increased with the popularity of social media for both older and younger generations.

Max Marcello | Staff Writer

There is an ongoing, yet silent crisis in our world today. It does not receive flashy headlines or star-studded podcast roundtables, nor does it receive the society wide awareness necessary to remedy it. Instead this crisis adroitly slips into our lives undetected, consuming us from the inside, creating an intimately personal form of torture, leaving an individual unrecognizable in the process. The condition is a virus. It is a fatal wound that humanity has chosen to inflict upon itself; Loneliness.

Despite living in the most interconnected period in human history, our society today is significantly more lonely than ever before. The situation has deteriorated to such a point that the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murty declared, loneliness to be an “epidemic” and a “public health crisis.” The psychological harm of lack of human contact is well understood by medicine. Prisoners who have been in solitary confinement for long periods of time have permanent, detectable brain damage. While most of us are not going to have that degree of damage, loneliness is rewiring our brains.

Contrary to what some may think, loneliness is a global problem. South-east Asian societies which emphasize collectivist beliefs are just as susceptible to loneliness as the hyper-individualistic culture of the United States. The underlying catalyst for our loneliness must originate from something else, and I would argue that the smoking gun is right in our hands, our phones. Social media, which was advertised to bring the world closer together in the 2000s, is paradoxically driving us apart today. The problems of social media are two fold. The first has to do with obsessing over image and superficiality. However the second and far more pervasive problem is social media’s tendency to monopolize communication.

Social media has largely created a climate whereby its use is necessary in order to communicate with peers and friends. Problems arising from the Instagramificiation of our social lives have been well documented. Studies have conclusively proven that platforms like Instagram have a direct negative impact on users’ mental health, particularly for young women.

However, I want to pivot to the far more sinister and less talked about aspect of social media, its direct impact on the user base.

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a very real thing according to the National Institutes of Health. And tech companies leverage the biological fear of social isolation against the user. This predatory behavior creates a negative feedback loop where the user stays on social media harming themselves in the process.

The user cannot help themselves as the isolation anxiety chains them to the phone. It is perhaps for this reason that everywhere you look, people are on their phones compulsively checking their status all to feel less lonely. In addition to controlling our digital selves, these platforms have largely succeeded in weakening a user’s ability to interface with the real world, making them more dependent on the platform for meeting their social needs. This cycle turns users into a Sisyphus of sorts. All the while tech and media companies continue to flourish in the loneliness economy of their own creation.

While most research around loneliness focuses on the individual, we cannot gage the true impact of loneliness until we look at the macroenvironment. Loneliness when translated to a society manifests differently to different groups. Chronic isolation has different effects on nursing home patients than young men.

Young men in particular are growing lonely at an alarming rate and its effects have a widespread impact on society according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These young men are forming digital communities that have real world harm. The internet has given new life to a toxic content which acts like a vortex drawing these lonely men in deeper, and bombarding them with extremist content and cheap fixes.

The rampant idolization of characters such as Patrick Bateman, Louis “Lou” Bloom, and Ryan Gosling’s Driver is a litmus test to how unhealthy their outlook on real life has become. While these communities have become infamous for their advocacy of violence, other cases of loneliness take a more self-destructive turn. Many who suffer from loneliness often turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope with the pain of isolation. This compounded with the physiological effects from loneliness itself can take years off a person’s life and set the stage for serious health conditions.

Redressing this messy situation is not going to be politically or socially easy as solving the loneliness crisis does not have a clear way out. Loneliness is multifactorial and demands a response that is just as diverse. Even though the solution may be difficult to comprehend, we best address this situation sooner rather than later lest our society continue a steady decline.

For as the old African proverb states, “A child who is not embraced by the village shall burn it down to feel its warmth.”