The Future of Social Connection, Loneliness, and Technology

October 5, 2020  • Kristine Gloria

The human experience is entirely linked to our ability to connect with the world around us. We’re psychologically, emotionally, and physiologically wired to bond with one another. 2020—marked by a global pandemic, economic instability, and societal reckoning with racism—has reminded us all what happens when meaningful social relationships are disrupted. 

Yet, resilience finds its way. Coupled with advancements in technology, people have found new methods to connect despite the physical distance. Some examples? Love is Quarantine, TikTok cloud raves, virtual happy hours, QuarantineChat. It’s clear that technology will play a core role in the future of our relationships. To prepare for this, we must explore the degree to which technology may influence a person’s emotional, psychological, and behavioral well-being.

Working with Facebook, we brought together researchers, academics, clinicians, and technologists this past summer for three closed-door sessions and a public panel to explore this topic. Our intent has been to listen and learn. 

Out of these discussions, three key takeaways emerged, and we developed a report (launched today) detailing these insights.

Read the Report

There is no strong evidence that indicates levels of loneliness have increased globally during the pandemic.

Despite initial expectations of COVID-19 physical distancing requirements potentially sparking an increase in loneliness, we do not have evidence that mean levels of loneliness have either increased or decreased throughout various world regions during the crisis. However, certain populations (vulnerable groups and life stages) are more likely to experience loneliness before and during COVID-19, such as younger adults, people who live alone, and people who have gone through major life events. When designing tech for people who are experiencing loneliness, precision is key. Technology companies can focus on the general population but should also consider the specific experiences of certain subpopulations when designing and developing products.

Loneliness is shaped not just by individual factors but by social constructs and the environment in which we live.

While much of the scientific literature points to the biological and psychological factors that contribute to loneliness, it is critical that we also recognize and give weight to the social, political, and economic factors in play. The question “Whose loneliness matters?” requires a deep reflection on the power structures that give rise to feelings of loneliness, particularly in marginalized communities. To mitigate the experience of loneliness requires responsibility and accountability of all stakeholders, such as governments, civic institutions, and tech companies. Technology is one piece of the puzzle, and tech solutions should be developed in concert with other key stakeholders. One role technology companies should play is in considering how power dynamics may manifest in the products they design and build to help people navigate feelings of loneliness. The same technology that can help people in times of loneliness can also simultaneously alienate them (e.g., the use of online comments to bully others).

The impact of social media on loneliness demands further study.

Scientific evidence of the causal impact of social media on an individual’s subjective well-being, such as feelings of loneliness, is sparse. There continues to be significant questions around metrics and measurement tools as well as gaps in data, which has challenged the efficacy of certain results. The research picture is incomplete. To build better digital tools, further investment in research must be made, both financially and collaboratively.

Questions certainly remain, and we consider this effort a complement to existing research. The aim is to catalyze a community of interest, and influence the design and build of products, tools, and services that support human well-being.

Dive into our new report, Lessons in Loneliness, and see what Facebook is up to in the related space of mental health. Also, tune into the Action Forum to End Social Isolation and Loneliness on Wednesday, October 14, at 11:30am ET. We will host a panel featuring tech innovators who are researching and developing in this space. Next up, Aspen Digital and Facebook will host a second series of roundtable discussions to go deeper with international experts.


Virtually Alone: The Future of Human Connection

An in-depth conversation on the future of human connection and the potential impact of technology on meaningful relationships.