Technology has made the world more “connected” than ever before. The internet, combined with all the nifty gadgets we use to plug in to it, has given us greater access to information, increased opportunities for interactions through social media, and enabled us to pay our bills, do our shopping, and even play games with people on the other side of the world – all from the comfort of our own homes. What a time to be alive, some might say. Others, however, argue that far from bringing us closer together, technology is in fact leaving us more isolated and lonely. So – are all the advancements of the digital age enriching our lives, or does technology make us more alone?
The Loneliness Epidemic
Whether technology can be directly blamed or not, there’s no denying the fact that the world is currently in the throes of what’s being described as a “loneliness epidemic.” A 2018 survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) finds that over one fifth (22%) of US adults say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated. A similar story is playing out across the pond, too, with 23% of adults in the UK responding in the same way.
The findings come off the back of a separate Cigna study, which reveals that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Also last year, the UK’s BBC Radio 4 released the results of its “Loneliness Experiment,” in which it was found that a third of Britons often or very often feel lonely. Across the whole of the EU, around 30 million adults frequently feel lonely, while in Japan, an estimated half a million people shut themselves off from society, often staying in their houses for months on end.
Loneliness can be severely life-altering – even life-threatening – for those who experience it. Linked with psychological problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders and depression, the devastating effects of loneliness cannot be overstated. There is also much evidence to suggest that loneliness causes biological problems as well as psychological ones, and can even lead to death. According to figures published in the Independent, an analysis of 300,000 people in 148 studies found that loneliness is associated with a 50% increase in mortality from any cause. In other words, no matter the ailment a person may be suffering with, isolation makes it worse and renders it harder to recover from the condition. In these terms, the analysis concluded, loneliness may be considered comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more dangerous than obesity.
(Image source: twitter.com)
Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
To combat the negative impacts of loneliness, people need real, in-person interactions, the authors of the Cigna study say. However, the more we rely upon technology – both at home and in the workplace – to socialize, complete daily tasks and perform work duties, the less time we spend meeting face-to-face with our friends, family, and co-workers, leading us once again to the question: Does technology make us more alone?
While different studies reveal slightly different statistics, the overall trend is clear – we are indeed addicted to technology, and social media use, in particular, has skyrocketed over recent years. One report last year from GlobalWebIndex estimates that digital consumers are now spending an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes per day on social networks and messaging services. Young people – 16-24-year-olds – spend even more time, clocking up about 3 hours per day.
(Image source: globalwebindex.com)
A separate report from Nielsen reveals that when we factor in all media technology – TV, computers, radio, smartphones, tablets – US adults are spending 10-and-a-half-hours every single day consuming media. That’s 10-and-a-half hours out of every 24 zoned into a screen, not talking to anybody, not socializing, engrossed in other people’s lives instead of living our own.
(Image source: nielsen.com)
Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance
Does all this time spent in front of screens crowd out time for anything more than superficial relationships? And, if so, how does this affect performance in the workplace?
Social connection is a primal human need, according to BYU Psychology Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of the world’s leading researchers on social connection. Her research has uncovered that loneliness is associated with poorer cognitive performance, which can affect an individual’s ability to complete work tasks efficiently and effectively. This chimes with other research findings published in the Academy of Management Journal, which suggest that greater employee loneliness leads to poorer task, team role, and relational performance. What’s more, the phenomenon extends right up the corporate ladder. Research has found that half of CEOs report feeling lonely – and 61% of them believe it hinders their performance.
But does technology make us more alone in the workplace, or is it something else? One thing’s for certain – advances in technology have given rise to the remote workforce. As of 2019, 66% of companies allow for remote work, and 16% are fully remote, according to Talent Lms. A separate study by the Global Leadership Summit found that thanks to collaboration software and the power of the internet, about a third of the global workforce will be remote in the next two years.
Generally, employees crave the option to telecommute – after all, it cuts out travel time and increases work/life flexibility. However, a study last year from human resource advisory firm Future Workplace and Virgin Pulse, a company that works with businesses to improve employees’ health, found that remote workers appear to be more likely to suffer from loneliness and disengagement.
The study – published in the book Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation by Future Workplace Research Director Dan Schawbel – found that remote employees today spend half their day using technology to communicate, rather than relying on face-to-face or even telephone conversations. As a result, slightly more than half said they very often or always feel lonely. And this is bad news for businesses. According to the study, greater feelings of loneliness and disconnection can lead to lower engagement from employees – and those who are disengaged are more likely to seek new employment elsewhere. “If you work remote, you’re less likely to stay with a company,” Schawbel says. “More people want to work remote, and more businesses are offering flexible work, not understanding it can have a big impact unless it’s handled with care.”
A new report from Igloo Software – State of Digital Workspace 2019 – reveals similar findings. 70% of remote employees feel left out of the workplace, reporting that they miss out on information, are excluded from meetings, and struggle to access important documents. Igloo Software CMO Mike Hicks comments on the findings in a press release: “There’s no shortage of communication or knowledge management apps available to businesses today, but it’s important to understand your workforce’s specific challenges before rolling them out. We’re seeing businesses adopt more applications with the goal of increasing productivity, yet this approach continues to yield discouraging results for both employees and the organization.”
(Image source: igloosoftware.com)
The findings go against what is supposed to be the primary function of collaboration software – bringing teams together. Rather, what seems to be happening is that through its very enablement of remote working, the technology makes us more alone.
Writing in MarketWatch, Schawbel explains that workplace loneliness is a serious threat both to workers’ overall health, as well as their productivity, engagement, and loyalty. “The main driver of remote work is technology, which has enabled everyone to connect with each other from anywhere, at any time. Technology has created the illusion that we’re all highly connected, and social when in reality we are deprived of real human interaction, which has led to a loneliness epidemic and lowered team commitment,” he says. “The freedom that technology has given us has had the reverse effect on your personal needs. After shelter and food, we desire relationships and love, which are hard to receive when technology is a barrier between us. While we crave in-person interactions, our behavior shows that we are addicted to our devices.”
Schawbel says that email over-usage, in particular, leads to workplace loneliness, as well as weak ties, miscommunication, and frustration among teammates. And when employees feel isolated and alone, they become unfulfilled and unhappy, leading to poor health and increased job searching.
Will Artificial Intelligence Corrupt Human Relationships?
It’s possible that as we head through the next decade, the workforce may become even more disconnected for two main reasons. The first has to do with rising technology use among adolescents – who will, of course, be entering the workforce in the very near future – and a correlating decline in their sense of well-being. Research into this cohort – published in the World Happiness Report 2019 – has found that adolescents are spending more time on-screen activities (especially digital media such as gaming, social media, texting, and web browsing) and less time interacting with each other. The report finds that in 2018, 95% of US adolescents had access to a smartphone, and 45% said they were online “almost constantly.” And as the amount of time these young people spend online has increased, their time for sleep and in-person social interaction has declined in tandem with a decline in general happiness. While the authors of the report are careful to note that these analyses are correlational – meaning they cannot prove that digital media time causes disconnection and unhappiness – the downwards trend of general contentment is nonetheless clear, meaning the next generation of workers may be inclined to disengagement before they even clock in for the first time.
(Image source: happiness-report/2019)
The second reason has to do with artificial intelligence further increasing the role and presence of machines in people’s day-to-day and working lives, diminishing people’s ability to connect with one another. This is the concern of physician and sociologist Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale and author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. In an article for The Atlantic, Christakis posits that for better and for worse, robots will alter humans’ capacity for altruism, love, and friendship.
Citing numerous studies – from his own lab at Yale as well as from third parties – Christakis suggests that widespread incorporation of artificial intelligence into our midst could potentially disrupt fundamental aspects of human behavior that comprise what he calls the “social suite”: a crucial set of capacities we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, including friendship, cooperation, and teaching. For example, in one experiment, Christakis and his team gave several thousand subjects money to use over multiple rounds in an online game. In each round, the subjects were told they could either keep the money or donate some or all of it to their neighbors. If they made a donation, the research team would match it, doubling the money their neighbors received. During the early stages of the experiment, two-thirds of the players acted altruistically, no doubt realizing the potential for reciprocity – i.e., being generous to their neighbors in one round might prompt their neighbors to be generous to them in the next one. However, when the research team secretly introduced a few AI bots (posing as real human players) and programmed them to behave selfishly, the group was driven to behave in a similar fashion. As Christakis puts it, “Eventually the human players ceased cooperating altogether. The bots thus converted a group of generous people into selfish jerks.”
Contemplating the implications of this finding, Christakis adds that “Cooperation is a key feature of our species, essential for social life. And trust and generosity are crucial in differentiating successful groups from unsuccessful ones. If everyone pitches in and sacrifices to help the group, everyone should benefit. When this behavior breaks down, however, the very notion of a public good disappears, and everyone suffers. The fact that AI might meaningfully reduce our ability to work together is extremely concerning.”
Digital Assistants and Sex Robots
There are real-world examples of AI corrupting human relations outside of the laboratory, too. For instance, during the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, millions of Twitter users retweeted posts from trolling and malicious Russian accounts – including those operated by bots – greatly influencing conservative users in particular and polarizing the country’s electorate.
There are other more everyday social effects of AI to be observed, too. Parents have started to become concerned about the way their children bark rude commands at digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. Will this rudeness bleed into the way our kids grow up treating real people? And what about adults? Cultural critic and journalist Judith Shulevitz previously told The Atlantic that she confesses things to her Google Assistant that she wouldn’t tell her husband. Here, Christakis poses the “Does technology make us more alone?” question in slightly different terms – “If we grow more comfortable talking intimately to our devices, what happens to our human marriages and friendships?”
And what about our sexual relationships? Citing Kathleen Richardson, an anthropologist at De Montfort University in the UK and director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, Christakis warns that the use of sex robots could lead users to retreat from real intimacy. “We might even progress from treating robots as instruments for sexual gratification to treating other people that way,” he says. Moreover, as young people increasingly spend more and more time on their own with digital media – correlating with declines in mental health – the knock-on effect may be that as they grow older, they will be less confident in forming human relationships with other people. Will sex robots serve as an “easy out” in these people’s future – a natural (or rather, unnatural) progression from treating technology as a confidant, teacher, therapist and friend from an early age? The normalization of sex robots, Richardson argues, will further serve to displace real human relationships with machines – the technology will make us more alone.
Digital media addiction. Collaboration software leaving remote employees feeling isolated, excluded, and disengaged. AI disrupting our social suite of friendship, altruism, and cooperation. Children’s relationships with artificially intelligent machines corrupting their capacity for empathetic connection. Full-grown adults are confiding in digital assistants before their next of kin. Sex robots are displacing human relationships. Does technology make us more alone? One thing’s for certain – the impact of technology on social life is significant, and it may well be a contributing factor to the loneliness epidemic. But here’s another certainty – we can’t remove technology from the equation. It’s too ingrained into our lives, our businesses, our infrastructure, our society. So, if technology is making us more alone, then it is down to us to do something about it.
At the level of the individual, we must make sure that we make an effort to sustain in-person social interactions with our peers, and not rely solely on digital, text-based communications across digital media, which are often shallow and give a false sense of being social. But connections matter in the workplace, too. Organizations should look to develop and sustain cultures of in-person connection that provide the structures needed for psychosocial support to foster inclusion and teamwork. The result will not only be better employee health and loyalty but better organizational health as a direct consequence.