Anxiety and Loneliness in the Digital Age

Anxiety and loneliness are at epidemic levels

It’s the great irony of the modern world: technology can connect us instantaneously to information, resources, and people all over the planet, yet people feel more anxiety and loneliness than ever.

You can sit on a Zoom call with half a dozen people, or dialogue through a Facebook Group that has thousands of members.  You can call a loved one on your phone, or video chat with them, or text them.  We live in an age in which technology gives us unprecedented access to other human beings, and yet anxiety and loneliness are being reported at epidemic levels all over the world.  How can that be?

And while the pandemic has forced people to be more physically distant from each other, these increasing levels of loneliness were reported for years before the pandemic occurred.  The landmark Cigna study in 2018 was the first to shine a light on what mainstream people were already talking about: human beings feel disconnected from each other, despite all the ways that technology gives them access.

Cigna did a follow-up study in 2019, and the results were even worse.  Three out of five Americans feel lonely.  One in four American adults rarely or never feel that there is someone who understands them.  Sit with that for a moment.  Think about the people you know and love in your life.  Statistically, some of them rarely or never feel that there is someone who understands them.  How can this be happening?

I have a theory: we’re being fooled.

I don’t think there’s some nefarious plot to fool us.  I don’t believe it’s a conscious process at all.  I think we’re fooling ourselves, somehow.  I think we’ve come to develop the belief that technology is keeping us connected to each other, but there’s an important difference between having access to someone, and genuinely feeling connected to them, and technology only provides access.  Smart phones and video cameras and internet service are the tools of connection, but whether you actually connect with someone when you are using those tools depends on how you use them.

Connection comes from the way we give our full presence to one another.  Body language cues, eye contact, and active listening skills cannot be faked.  They’re either happening, or they’re not.  There’s a significant tendency to multi-task while technology is being used.  We talk on the phone while driving, or have a video call going while we’re cooking, or we text while sitting on the couch and watching TV.  And we don’t question these activities because they are so prolific.  It’s just the way life is.  But it’s time to question these activities, and ask if they getting us the results we really desire.

Stop Multi-tasking

The research is clear: multi-tasking doesn’t improve productivity.  We all want to believe that we’re great at it, that we can spin six plates at once and not break any, but it just isn’t true.  It’s a badge of honor that we seek.  Being really busy means we’re important.  Let’s change that badge of honor system.  Let’s make it one in which having loving, rich relationships makes us important to others.

Start Being Fully Present

It’s time to slow down and improve the quality of our task orientation, and the first place we should start is our communication with others.  If you can, get on a video call with people so you can see their faces.  Stay focused on them as much as you can while you talk.  Notice their facial expressions, get cues from their body language.  This is how we were meant to communicate.  When you respond to the person not just according to what they say, but how they’re saying it with their whole self, you’ll have a more meaningful conversation, and it will feel different to you and to them.

Listen Actively

When we are really listening to what another person says, we ask clarifying questions that help us understand them better, and we engage in the conversation.  Engagement is a form of presence.  We’re not here just to be a passive listener so the person feels like they have someone to talk to; we listen actively so that the person feels that they have a confidant they can rely on.

We’re lucky to live in this amazing age where we can see and hear our loved ones even when they are physically distant from us.  It’s up to us to make sure that we practice being present for one another so that we stay connected and feel loved.