Immunise yourself against digital loneliness

by Dr Richard Wolman and Dr Chris Merritt

Many of us are trapped inside and reliant on digital tech for human contact

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced most of us into a temporary state of isolation. We are almost completely reliant on digital technologies to communicate with anyone outside of our household units. For those who live alone, the digital world is essentially all that remains of our previous social lives.

We can be extremely grateful for that tech. Our forebears who lived through similar crises did not have video calls, WhatsApp and Skype, text and email, tablets and smartphones. There was no social media to follow, no live-streamed news to provide official updates, no self-isolation memes to bring laughter.

The irony is that, in the decade before Covid-19, when we were allowed to meet face to face without restriction, we frequently chose to communicate digitally instead. It’s quick, easy and relatively cheap. People love the convenience of being able to Snapchat a friend or comment on an Instagram post while doing another thing they enjoy, like watching Netflix or YouTube. Because more is better, right?

Even pre-lockdown, many people preferred to communicate digitally

A digital pandemic

We convinced ourselves that these superficial digital interactions were desirable. That they were just the new norm, a successful mutation in the evolution of human contact. After all, many of the tools we used were known collectively as ‘social’ media. If we’re using it, how can we be anti-social, or alone?

This tech spread globally at a speed of near-pandemic proportions. But, in accepting it into our lives, we ignored what it made us miss: face to face contact, touch, and the buzz of being together that is wired into us.

Conducting our relationships via digital tech is ideal in societies which encourage each of us to be the centre of our own universe. To accumulate and acquire, to use and dispose, to seek recognition and acknowledgment for our accomplishments.

Even in the company of others, we would often choose to use our phones in isolation. The metrics of an app might proclaim our popularity, but the truth is, we’re alone.

Social isolation should make us reflect on how we use digital tech

A human cure

Virologists and public health experts recommend isolation and social distancing to halt the spread of Covid-19. They are encouraging us to communicate digitally, which many people are doing. A lot. A recent Wall Street Journal article even described the experience of lockdown video-call fatigue.

Coronavirus will pass. A vaccine will be developed and delivered, we will achieve ‘herd immunity’, and life will return to relative normality. Then, we should take a good long look at how we use tech and learn a lesson from the pandemic.

If isolation and digital communication helped us overcome a biological virus, then how should we treat the digital contagion of isolating tech use? Answer: by doing the opposite of our Covid-19 strategy: meeting face to face, wherever possible, rather than online. Ideally in groups, getting close and forming spontaneous, real-life human bonds.

Face to face contact is vital for stopping digital isolation

We can also use tech in ways that benefit our relationships, rather than relegating social contact to a by-product of our digital activity. There are already signs of such change taking place, with community WhatsApp groups to help the vulnerable and isolated, enabling neighbours who’ve never spoken to connect and support each other. Let’s not lose this digital humanism.

Coronavirus is already highlighting what some of our societies have been neglecting for years: family, community, environment. But can we also use the pandemic to redress the balance of tech in our lives and relationships? We may only get one chance to put humanity back at the centre.

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Richard Wolman

Richard Wolman

Digital Humanist and behavioural psychologist. Here to debate how we make sure humanity is the central consideration for any new technology