Is Your Phone Making You Lonelier?

Loneliness has skyrocketed over the past few years. According to a recent Cigna study, over 3 in 5 Americans are lonely. “Yes, but why,” you may be asking. Is it our phones and devices, or other societal changes, such as increasing economic, political and social discord and division?  

It’s Not Just Our Phones 

It’s difficult to isolate only one cause of our loneliness. Based on research from the Pew Research Center and others, it’s distinctly possible that our increasingly digitally-mediated lifestyle is not only directly causing our loneliness but also indirectly making us lonelier, through fostering this divisiveness. Let’s take a deeper dive into whether one of the guilty culprits in our increasingly lonely lifestyles is our phones/devices. 

One randomized controlled trial assigned otherwise similar individuals to either spend more or less time on their screens, while another simply monitored screen use over time in a random set of individuals. Both studies found that more screen time causes increased loneliness, depression and anxiety, and less emotional connection with others

I’ve spent the past ten years researching and teaching people about how to manage complex emotions such as loneliness and trauma. After interviewing hundreds of people from all walks of life and listening to their stories about what has precipitated the loneliest moments of their lives, I’m convinced that the recent increases in screen time and loneliness are inextricably linked. 

No Two Places at Once 

This link is not far-fetched due to a “displacement effect” (think: the water displaced when you drop a bowling ball in a bathtub, which I’m sure you do often) in which more time online equates to less time face-to-face with family and friends.  

This effect was first observed by social psychologist Robert Kraut and his research team at Carnegie Mellon University in the late ’90s when they provided free computers, Internet access, and a phone line to ninety-three families in Pittsburgh. They subsequently tracked the activities and emotional states of every family member over ten years old who was interested in joining the study (169 people in total) for two years.  

The researchers found that the more time these individuals spent online, the less time they spent in person with family members and friends—and the lonelier and more depressed they became. Because Kraut and his colleagues surveyed these family members before they received daily access to a computer and the Internet, the research team was able to identify electronic communication as a cause of social isolation, depression, and loneliness. 

Over two decades later, nothing has changed. Consider the experience of Hannah, the vice president of a technology company in San Francisco I interviewed last year for my book Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age who recounts how loneliness and time on her digital devices impacted her life after a recent breakup: 

After a six-year relationship ended in 2016, I jumped into another relationship in 2017. Following the most recent breakup, I realized how much I have relied on others to feel happy. I have spent the last eight years of my life relying on someone else for fulfillment. Throughout these experiences, I made it a priority to display my relationships and outings online for others to see. I wanted others to see how happy I was. Scrolling through my Instagram feed has become a bad habit and quite unhealthy because I have the tendency to compare my life with the lives of others. People have never witnessed any authenticity or my true emotion of loneliness because I choose not to upload that part of my life. I choose not to upload when I am struggling emotionally, socially, or financially. This habit has only reinforced the fact that I utilize social media as a drug to temporarily cure my social isolation. 

These interviews have convinced me that the reason we’re unable to cope with the dysfunctional nature of our lives is that the new technology-induced social norms we unwittingly conform to are dysfunctional. Our smartphone and screen use have propelled us down an unfulfilling path. We have been promised connection. Instead, we have ended up with loneliness and misery. 

A grim picture? Yes, when you consider that loneliness is more detrimental to our health than smoking and, in older people, twice as likely as obesity to precipitate death. Yet such a scenario is an unfortunately accurate portrait of what our lives have become. 

To turn this dynamic around, start using your phone as … a phone. Call the people you care about and share how you are each navigating these challenging times. Turn your video off periodically on Zoom calls—and encourage others to do the same to reshape the new videoconferencing norms—to reduce Zoom fatigue and increase your creativity. In all ways large and small, develop strategies personalized to the daily rhythm of your life so you can spend less time gazing at a screen and more time looking into the eyes of and communicating meaningfully with the people who matter to you. 

Have you experienced a connection between screen use and loneliness in your life? Tell us about it in the comments.