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November 6, 2023

A Lonely World

A quarter of adults in the world say they are lonely. There are important reasons for that.

There are an estimated 8.1 billion people currently living on planet Earth, and thanks to the Internet, people have never been more connected and in tune with events across the world.

Yet a first-of-its-kind mega survey conducted by Gallup found that the world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. The poll surveyed adults in 142 countries, and one in four of them reported feeling “very or fairly lonely.” To make matters worse, China, the world’s second-highest-populated country with more than 1.4 billion people, did not participate in the survey. It’s a good bet given China’s longtime one-child policy and draconian COVID restrictions that the Chinese would have pushed the loneliness percentage even higher.

Interestingly, the survey found that those adults reporting the lowest rate of loneliness were 65 years of age and older, coming in at 17%. By contrast, adults registering the highest rate of loneliness were the youngest adults, age 19 to 29, with 27% claiming a significant rate of loneliness. That’s incredibly ironic and also telling given that young adults are the most Internet-connected generation — often described as online natives, having not known a world without the Internet.

Furthermore, the study showed little distinction in loneliness based upon sex. High rates of young men and women both report feeling lonely.

This survey, as noted above, has raised concerns that the world is suffering a loneliness epidemic. A significant factor to be noted is that the survey was conducted from June 2022 to February 2023. That’s after the global COVID pandemic had abated, but before the shock was a distant memory.

We are living in the Information Age. From a practical standpoint, everyone is connected to local, national, and even global societies.

However, it would appear that this technologically based connection has not in fact led to greater individual social connection.

This raises the obvious question: Why?

There are likely a myriad of reasons and factors, including the delusion of unlimited choice the Internet can give. Prior to the Internet, the social pool from which an individual could choose friends and relationships was limited to their immediate physical location, the local community in which they found themselves.

Children had the option of neighborhood kids or kids at school from which to choose their friends. As adults, their options weren’t much different — their workplace, their neighborhood, a church, and/or some social club. In all of these instances, the people they interacted with on a regular basis were typically a relatively limited group. Furthermore, the only real outside influence came from TV shows, news, and movies, but these would all have been seen as distant factors to be evaluated within their local community, like the water cooler at work.

But the Internet, and more significantly the development of social media, changed all that. Now people can literally and in real time interact with individuals in any part of the world. The physical limits for developing relationships were theoretically removed. People can chose their friends based on their own interests rather than on who happened to be in their local community.

This likely explains why the youngest adults are experiencing the highest degree of loneliness. Social media has in many respects replaced their local communities. The trouble is that online communities are not real communities in the sense that a local community is both located in a physical time and place and individuals are in direct contact with each other. People simply don’t behave the same way toward each other behind the “safety” of a screen, either.

When the faux community replaces genuine community, the natural result will be a lack of true relationship. And the effect of a lack of true relationship is loneliness.

So, as the world has gotten more connected, people have ironically become more isolated. They not been forced by the limits of time and space to learn to engage and develop relationships with people in their immediate physical locale. The Internet has afforded a form of fantasy world, and yet that’s all it ends up being — a dream world where others project their fabricated selves, but few truly get to know each other.

Humans are social creatures, and that means they flourish most when they are living in genuine community.

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