The Loneliness Epidemic #lookedup

I happen to quite like technology.

I love that, a few years ago, I could sit in my apartment in New York and see my dad’s face from his home in Australia, and now I can sit in my apartment in Australia and see his face from a hole in the wall in Kansas. I love that I can keep in contact with friends I made in Germany, Thailand, Italy and America. I love social media, blogs and personal websites as mean of self-expression, community-building and information-sharing.

But when I see two people sitting next to each other on a park bench silently hunched over their phones or the man in the car next to me texting at a stop sign or the people in the line for their morning coffee with their heads buried in their phones, I feel something kind of like heartbreak.

We’ve talked for decades about the fear of robots taking over; I think when we imagined it, we thought of a forceful takeover—a violent battle in which we all fight bravely for our freedom.

Looking around, though, it seems pretty apparent that we are simply handing that freedom over.

There aren’t sinister machines growing legs and turning against us, and we certainly aren’t running for our lives.

And here’s the part that makes all this as upsetting as it is: People today are more connected to one another than ever before in human history, thanks to Internet-based social networking sites and text messaging. But they’re also more lonely and distant from one another in their unplugged lives, says Sherry Turkle, PhD (2012). This is not only changing the way we interact online, it’s straining our personal relationships and the way we interact in public space as well.

Technology itself is innocent, and can so frequently be an asset, but when we sink into hypnotism, we give away our power. Our compulsions, addictions, and distractions are never anything more than an honest and childlike longing for fullness and joy.

As Louis C.K. (2013) illustrates so clearly, “we need to build an ability to just be ourselves and not be doing something.” This is a natural human state, but it can be scary as hell. It allows for the bottomless cesspool of our inner world to have a voice for a moment.

The most dramatic change that technology offers is our ability to be “elsewhere” at any point in time, to sidestep what is difficult, what is hard in a personal interaction and go to another place where it does not have to be dealt with. So, it can be as simple as waiting at the bus stop and going on your phone to fill the loneliness or avoid talking to the person next to you. ‘Cause shit! What if things get awkward? It is, however, very important that everyone develop these social skills and have real life connections- not just ones on screens. If people looked up from their phones more often they might see something they would have missed out on entirely.  These days, however, when a difficult or uncomfortable or lonely moment comes, a lot of people retreat onto Facebook. Whether or not they physically leave the place they are, they have “left.”

Walking through the grounds of university, we are together, but each of us in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and touchscreen, ignoring everything and everyone around them.  To get to know why people do this, and myself included, I posted a survey to the University Facebook page and asked students to fill it out. The results were very saddening, as to why people avoided real life human interactions and always resorted to their screens.

When I asked people through a survey if they prefer talking or texting, I was shocked.  52% told me that they’d rather text than talk, they are expressing another aspect of the new psychological affordances of the new technology — the possibility of our hiding from each other. They say a phone call reveals too much, that actual conversations don’t give them enough control over what they want to say.

96% of students said they had felt lonely at university at one point or another in their studies. 56% of students said that they avoided talking to people because they didn’t really know how to start or sustain a conversation and 74%of students said they look at their phone whilst waiting for something because they don’t want to appear lonely and friendless to other people. Another 88% of students attributed their incessant phone use to the fact that they just couldn’t be bothered to talking to new people or looking up and noticing what is going on around them as they found that what was going on, on their screen to be far more interesting.

During the research conducted, subjects when being alone in public without their mobile devices expressed these feelings of being alone and anxious, they noted:

“I felt I was missing something.”

“ I felt lost without my phone, something was missing.”

“I felt nervous, confronted, intimidated and fidgety.”

“I experienced feelings of being bored and self-conscious at times.”

A similar response from another surveyed individual who answered yes to ever using their phone whilst waiting:

“I feel like I’m more subconsciously fixated on checking social media and not being able to just sit and do nothing at all without feeling restless and uncomfortable.”

“Yes, I felt-lost- I couldn’t be contacted by anyone or contact anyone, I couldn’t check social media and felt out of touch and unsafe.”

Here were some other responses:

“I became so used to checking my phone so often that it’s weird when I don’t have it.”

“I didn’t know where to look without having my phone to look at.”

My survey is not the only one showing these results. It seems to be a ubiquitous issue: the paradox of loneliness in crowded places. A recent survey British telecom regulator Ofcom (2013)  revealed that, 81% of smartphone users have it on all day, every day. Almost half of smartphone users, upon being woken up by a phone call or text or misplaced alarm at night, end up using the phone instead of shutting it off and going back to sleep. Over half of adults and two-thirds of teens regularly use their phones while socializing with others in person (there’s nothing like a tableful of people staring at their phones in unison, is there?). About a quarter of adults use their phone during dinner. A third of teens can say the same. 47% of teens use their phones on the toilet, while just over a fifth of adults do the same. However, more than a quarter of Londoners say they feel lonely often or all of the time, according to a poll commissioned by BBC London (2013). Nearly 60% of those aged between 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35% of those aged over 55The same proportion said there was little or no sense of community where they live and a third said they felt they did not know their neighbours. In a report by Mental Health UK (2010), found technology can isolate but is also an unrivalled means of connecting people.

These statistics call for us to realise that the smartphone and the screens we have are making us lonelier and unhappy in public spaces.  As we become more reliant and addicted to our screens to fill the void, we lose the ability to create new human relationships or appreciate the smell of the place where you get your morning coffee, or catching the smile of a passer-by.

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we short-change ourselves. Worse, as my survey found, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

As Shirley Turkle (2012) puts it; ‘We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.’

WE expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship. Always-on/always-on-you devices provide three powerful fantasies: that we will always be heard; that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and that we never have to be alone. Indeed our new devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved.

When people are alone, even for a few moments, they fidget and reach for a device. Here smartphone connection works like a painkiller, not a cure, and our constant, reflexive impulse to connect shapes a new way of being.

This new way of being spills out into the public spaces we find ourselves in. For example eating lunch in the park is now always accompanied by a smartphone or tablet. The public space use to be a place where people can socialise and meet others whilst getting out of their private sphere. Now they have become extended private spheres. Most people chose their smartphones over meeting new people.

This results in a sea of people looking at their phones instead of experiencing the world and the people around them. I’d love it if public spaces were reconstructed in a way that would make people feel comfortable enough that they could interact with one another without their smartphones.

“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” was the headline on a substantial article in US magazine The Atlantic in 2012. In a New York Times article headlined “How Not to Be Alone” and published in June 2013, American writer Jonathan Safran Foer homed in on the essence of the issue. “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat,” he wrote. “Each step ‘forward’ has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”

You may have 600 friends on Facebook, but how many of them provide a meaningful connection? How often have you tapped at your phone or clicked the “refresh” button on your email, longing for someone to message you? How often have you had your head down over your smartphone when you might have lifted it to see and connect with a warm, living, breathing human being?

We use phones to avoid being human. I suspect that the next generation is going to be entirely skilled with these things and entirely unequipped for real human beings.

Smartphones are proving to be dehumanising, through the rituals and routines that we are using this technology. We are easily tempted by their potential to connect to a wider social network, which inhibits our value in trying to connect with the person or place right in front of us (Kruszelnicki 2013).

I’m writing this now in my apartment, on the computer that connects me to Facebook and Twitter and any number of other online distractions. It’s deathly quiet. Silence is good for writing. But silence tells its own story. Silence opens up the space for those insidious slivers of doubt about success and failure, meaning and worth. Silence emphasises the stark reality of the small part we each play in this whole big thing.

Loneliness can make you feel as though there’s not enough of you, the Canadian writer Emily White said on radio (2011). Herbert Bowers (2007), in his cold public-housing flat, makes a similar remark: “It’s the tyranny of being tiny: you have all these people around you but you’re so tiny they don’t take notice of you. And it’s not that you want to be noticed in a big way. It’s just a nod of the head, ‘How are you?’ As simple as that.”

I myself am as guilty as anyone, I rarely ride the bus without my smartphone, listening to music, closed off from others. However, for one week I decided I would refrain from this and started the #lookedup movement. For one week I set myself a goal to not bury my head in my phone when I was in a new situation, alone, waiting or in transport. I sat through the feeling and #lookedup. Some the things I would have missed if my head was buried were pretty cool. I asked my Instagram followers to take part and the response was overwhelming. People from all over the world #lookedup from their phones and some amazing things happened.

I hope people are learning to place boundaries around their use of smartphones and the need for constant connection and that they are beginning to develop the “ability to recognize what technology is causing distractions and addictive behaviour”.   As we become more aware of the ways that technology is disrupting our relationships, and the richness and fullness of our life we can make a change.

We can choose to turn off our smartphones and consciously enter into the shared public space in which we inhabit with others.  Once we become aware of the presence of others, we can begin to pay attention to each other and choose to enter into meaningful dialogues.

As we continue to pay attention to where we place our attention, we begin to notice that technology is only pulling on our attention because we allow it to. “Technology is not out of control because it is a real power, but because we cannot control what is suppose to control it; namely, ourselves.”

What if we acknowledged that emptiness is natural and allowed, and that sadness is inevitable? I think the payoff is worthwhile; indeed, there is more to living than just feeling “kinda satisfied with our products” (Louis C.K 2013)

So I’ve made a pact—want to join me? Let’s band together and agree to find some bravery; let’s sit with our sadness and allow our loneliness and boredom and angst and nihilism to exist AND lets look up from our screen and live. Don’t shuffle along, oblivious to the world around you, eyes and attention trained on that screen, missing everything that is important in life.

Reference List

BBC UK 2012, ‘Lonely London: Poll suggests a quarter feel alone’, BBC UK London,  20 November 2012, viewed 28th October 2014, <;.

C.K, L & Obrien, C 2013, The Conan Obrien Show, online video, 20 September 2013, Gawker, viewed 28th October 2014, <;.

Foer Safran J 2013, ‘How not to be alone’, The New York Times Sunday Review, 8 June 2013, viewed 28th October, <;.

Hutcheon J, 2013, One Plus One: Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, online video, One Plus One, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, viewed 29 October 2014, <;.

Loneliness: breaking the taboo, 12 November 2011 1:00pm, radio program, ABC Radio, accessed 29th October 2014, <;.

Lost and Found- Episode 14, 2007, television program, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia, viewed online 29th October 2014, <;.

Marchie S, ‘Is Facebook Making Us Lonely’, The Atlantic, 2 April 2012, viewed 28th October 2014, <;.

The Mental Health Foundation, ‘The Lonely Society’, The Mental Health Foundation, 2010, viewed 29th October 2014, <;.

Robinson, Anthony, B. “How did phones take over our lives?”Crosscut: News of the Great Nearby . Accessed September 13, 2013.

Przybyiski, Andrew K., and Netta Weinstein. “Can You Connect with Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 30, no. 3 (July 19, 2012): 237-46. Accessed September 13, 2013. doi:10.1177/0265407512453827.

Turkle, S 2012, Connected, but alone?, online video, 2 February, TED Talks, viewed 11 October 2014, <;.


All images used in Prezi Presentation are licensed attribution free from  Creative Commons/ Creative Commons Flickr  or are my own.




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