Only the lonely – the new epidemic hitting Australians

Almost 60 per cent of young Australians feel lonely

The human race is suffering an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation”, an alarming trend that Australians are not escaping.

The US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy chose to highlight the issue in his annual advisory, released in early May: ‘Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.’

The advisories by the US’s top health official are statements that alert Americans to pressing health issues and offer information about how the  wider community should combat it.

May’s warning followed a similar declaration in 2017. This year, however, Dr Murthy had a particular focus for his fears about a loneliness epidemic.

He singled out social media as a “profound risk of harm” for young people.

“We’re in the middle of a youth mental health crisis, and I’m concerned that social media is contributing to the harm that kids are experiencing,” Dr Murthy told CNN.

“For too long, we have placed the entire burden of managing social media on the shoulders of parents and kids, despite the fact that these platforms are designed by some of the most talented engineers and designers in the world to maximise the amount of time that our kids spend on them,” he said.

“That is not a fair fight. It’s time for us to have the backs of parents and kids.”

Dr Murthy’s alarm for the mental health of million of young Americans,  which comes as many US states and countries around the world launch crackdowns on social media giants, is also shared in Australia.

Ferdi Botha, a senior research fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, told the ABC that escalating loneliness had been evident for some time.

It was only accelerated by the pandemic.

“Since 2001, we’ve seen a definite decline in the frequency of social contact, and the trend unsurprisingly worsened during the years of the COVID pandemic,” Dr Botha said.

In 2018, Swinburne University published a report outlining just how bad the situation is for some Australians.

It found that younger adults reported significantly more social interaction anxiety than older Australians.

“Loneliness is a feeling of distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like. It is a personal feeling of social isolation. It is different to feeling alone: We can be surrounded by others but still lonely, or we can be alone but not feel lonely,” the Swinburne researchers wrote.

“Research has found that loneliness is related more to the quality than the quantity of relationships. A lonely person feels that their relationships are not meaningful and that he or she is not understood by others.”

The dangers of prolonged loneliness are severe, and can include serious physical and mental health risks. There’s also an escalated risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.

Technology’s role in the human connection

Sriya Shubhalaxmi Mishra, author of The Advent of Technology and its Impact on the Society said increasing dependence on technology had coincided with the decline in human social contact.

Other catalysts include fewer people helping out at volunteer organisations, longer working hours, and an increase in the number of people preferring to live alone.

Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh echoed the pitfalls of technology on human connection.

“Technology is pushing us apart, a larger portion of Australians work, and we are tending to work longer hours,” Dr Leigh told the ABC.

Which is counterintuitive to the aim many “social” media sites claim to have.

Throughout the pandemic, lockdowns and other social restrictions meant everyone was forced into social isolation – which differs from loneliness.

Social media was seen as a vital tool to relieve the loneliness some felt throughout the pandemic.

But excessive use of social media in those years actually increased anxiety levels.

How this affects Australians

Swinburne’s report found some worrying statistics:

  • Lonely Australians have significantly worse health status (both physical and mental) than connected Australians
  • Lonely Australians are 15.2 per cent more likely to be depressed
  • Nearly 30 per cent of Australians rarely or never feel part of a
    group of friends.

These figures reveal how disconnected Australians have become and how keen many people are for human connection.

“The number of close friends that Australians have has approximately halved since the mid-1980s, as has the number of neighbours who we know well enough to drop in on uninvited,” Dr Leigh said.

What we can do to beat loneliness

The unfortunate truth is that there might not be an immediate cure for loneliness, especially because many of us are so used to a technology and work-heavy lifestyle.

With people often prioritising working as much as possible, the time for human connection is dwindling.

Dr Murthy offered eight handy ideas to the Washington Post to help re-establish meaningful social connections:

  1. Set aside time every day to reach out to people you love
  2. When interacting with people, give them your full attention
  3. Find ways to serve
  4. Form a “moai”. A moai is a tradition hailing from Japan where a small group of people serve as life-long supports for one another.

Dr Murthy also had some advice for employers trying to navigate ever-changing workplaces.

He suggested four ways to help employees connect socially, creating situations for potential friendships.

  1. Recognise that remote work has its challenges
  2. Use tools to help people get to know one another
  3. Track how employees are doing with building relationships
  4. Plan in-person gatherings.
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