How to stop the scroll: 8 insights about loneliness and connection
What can a Harvard professor, a TED speaker, and the “Marie Kondo of brains” teach us about togetherness? Catch up on our webinar double-header, to find out.
Loneliness is not just universal, but biological. Yet, when we turn to screens for connection, the opposite can occur (that is, higher rates of anxiety, stress and loneliness).
This Mental Health Awareness Week (UK), and Mental Health Awareness Month (US), we launched a call to arms/thumbs: ‘Stop the Scroll’.
To explore how we can better un-wire, beat distraction and foster more togetherness, Unmind co-founder and chief wellbeing officer, Steve Peralta, spoke to an expert panel on either side of the Atlantic.
We were joined by:
- Catherine Price – aka “the Marie Kondo of Brains”, and author of the book: 'How to Break Up With Your Phone' (UK/US webinar).
- Georgie Wheadon – Founder of Umii (UK).
- Professor Roger Patulny – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Wollongong (UK).
- Dr Jeremy Nobel. Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and founder of Project UnLonely (US).
- Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad. A TED speaker, and member of the technical working group for the UK Cross Departmental Loneliness Team (US).
You can catch both conversations below. You’ll want to, too – they dive deep into the psychology behind loneliness, provide tactics to help support the wellbeing of those around you, and how to make technology work for (not against) you.
Short on time? Don’t stress. Till you can watch them in full, here are eight top-line takeaways.
1. Technology is both hero and villain
Social media likes are no substitute for quality interaction. And yet, like choosing sweet treats over salad, these can be an all-too tempting replacement for carving out time to connect with friends IRL.
Pointing out the inherent contradiction, Catherine Price said: “The irony is that some of the apps that were created, supposedly, to connect us, are doing completely the opposite.”
The fix? Catherine suggests tuning into ourselves. Ask: do I actually feel connected, or is this interaction short-term; the emotion short-lived? Put another way: is it sweets or salad?
2. You can reclaim control of tech
For many of us, phones are the last thing our eyes see at bedtime, and the first one we peep in the AM. During awake hours, devices disrupt our daily routines hundreds of times.
Worse, we spend much of our lives with one foot in the real world, and another in the virtual. Scrolling while chatting, scrolling while cooking, scrolling while on a treadmill. At its worst, tech can prevent us from ever being 100% present.
Yet it is possible to erect better boundaries.
- Switching off push notifications.
- Making social media apps harder to find on your phone (or deleting, so you can only access via a laptop).
- Turning certain rooms into no-phone zones at home.
- Asking the wider question: when you reach for your phone – why?
Sometimes, simple awareness can bring about a deeper level of understanding. From there, you can choose to make better decisions.
“The irony is that some of the apps that were created, supposedly, to connect us, are doing completely the opposite”
3. Loneliness has a fixed definition (no wait, two)
Professor Roger Patulny explained there are two types of loneliness – social and emotional. To combat loneliness, it’s key to first work out which you are experiencing.
As Prof Roger noted: “It’s possible to be in a loving relationship, but feel lonely because you expect your partner to make up for a lack of friends.
“On the other hand, you can have a group of good friends and feel lonely without a primary partner.” In a recent US study, students who admitted to higher rates of binge drinking reported less loneliness. “It gave them a sense of belonging, connection, and authentic friendships,” said Dr Jeremy Nobel. “And yet it’s a very toxic way to achieve that kind of goal.”
4. And it’s also pretty complex
Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad: “People might say they feel alone or they feel isolated, but [loneliness is] often defined as the discrepancy between one’s actual level of connection and one’s desired level of connection.
“Of course these things often go hand in hand – because if you’re objectively alone, you’re more likely to feel alone – but they don’t always go together. In fact, you can be isolated but not feel lonely, you might take pleasure in that solitude.
“And conversely, you can be not isolated – so surrounded by other people – and still feel profoundly lonely.”
5. It’s possible to stop the cycle of digital distraction
Social media, it’s said, is the new cigarettes. This hasn’t happened by chance. Every time a pal hearts your cat snap on Instagram, you get a jolt of dopamine. This tells your brain to seek more.
We know social media companies are geared around algorithms that keep us scrolling. So is it any wonder we sometimes find it hard to stop?
There is hope. Prof Roger Patulny pointed to the fact that, in Australia, millions chose to delete their Facebook accounts. More recently, many are doing the same with Twitter. Some younger people believe certain social platforms aren’t worth it at all.
Meanwhile, Catherine Price suggested we investigate our own intentions. Instead of aimless scrolling, is there something you’d sooner do? If not, scroll away. If there is a more enjoyable way to spend your time… do that.
"People might say they feel alone or they feel isolated, but [loneliness is] often defined as the discrepancy between one’s actual level of connection and one’s desired level of connection"
6. We can embrace tech with ‘hybrid socialising’
Mixing the physical office with WFH suits many a modern lifestyle. So who says friendships can’t be nurtured online and off?
Georgia Wheadon pointed out that online relationships can help ease the stress of in-person meetings: “Social anxiety is at an all-time high,” she said, “especially in Gen Z.
"So it may be easier for many younger people to meet in real life after already chatting online.”
7. Avoiding loneliness at all costs can cause problems
Looking back to that US study mentioned in our third takeaway, students who admitted to higher rates of binge drinking reported less loneliness. While it gave them a sense of belonging and connection, it’s clearly not the best way to do it.
Obviously, there's a much deeper debate around the merits of connection to be had (for instance, social isolation is shown to increase your chance of various illnesses, and even death), yet Dr Jeremy’s message was clear: get inquisitive.
“The most helpful thing we can be doing for ourselves and others is to explore loneliness,” he said. “Get curious about it. So when we have crappy ass experiences on our phone that makes us feel terrible, we stop doing them, and move towards things that are more helpful.”
8. The ‘fizz’ you feel around friends is real (and powerful)
Remember that buzz you felt, post lockdown, when ditching Zoom for actual face-time with workmates? This wasn’t the rush of liberation (or at least, not only that), it was ‘collective effervescence'.
Coined by Émile Durkheim, the concept was unpacked beautifully on our webinar by Catherine Price:
“[It']s the feeling we get, when we’re in a group of people and we feel this energy from the group. I think it’s something we’ve really been missing for the past two years – that kind of joyful energy that can come just from being around other human beings.”
Missed the webinars? Watch in full, below:
Learn more about loneliness
Want to find out more about tech-free connection? These resources each got a shout-out during the webinars, and may help you on your own mission to stop the scroll.
- Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection – John Cacioppo (book)
- Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life – Richard Louv (book)
- Screen/Life Balance (website)
- Dystopian Emotions: Emotional Landscapes and Dark Futures – Jordan McKenzie & Roger Patulny (book)
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking – Susan Cain (book)
- Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – Johann Hari (book)