The loneliness epidemic: Can tech solve a problem that it caused?

At some point, we’ve all gone out of our way to be there for our friends. We’ve shown up, listened, celebrated and concurred. We know how to validate, field inklings of inadequacy or defeat, and act as sounding boards. Ultimately, we’re there to fill in the gap. We build relationships to serve as singular, respite constants in lives that are dynamic, demanding or even mundane. Human connection is the universal salve to listlessness, complacency and stifled innovation. While our affinity for this connection exists on a spectrum from introverted to extroverted (an oversimplification), the condition caused by the chronic lack of it can be termed loneliness.


What happens when we are deprived of social connection?

Loneliness’ pernicious consequences are well publicized and recognized by the scientific community. Though the bulk of research explores the psychosomatic implications of loneliness for older adults, loneliness is even more prevalent among young adults The myriad risks of this invisible aggressor include heightened chance of stroke and heart attack, neurodegenerative conditions and premature death². These risks though, akin to those of obesity and smoking, aren’t news. What’s pertinent is the tradeoff between convenience and connection. Efficiency, now achieved en masse via remote work and telecommuting tools, requires an inordinate amount of solitude. Unstructured social interactions in professional settings are few and far between scarce, with ‘water cooler innovation’ relegated to breakout rooms. Sterile interactions persist in the friendly sphere — ask yourself if a like on social media (passive engagement) has ever elicited the same hug-like oxytocin rush as a real human conversation.

Can tech solve a problem that it caused?

Recently, we all witnessed weekend get-togethers turn into group chats and firework brainstorming sessions slouch into Slack channels. The pandemic was not the catalyst but is the accelerant. Research posits that a hyper-focus on technology has created a society made up of ephemeral, loosely associated coveys, where loneliness is exacerbated by neuroticism³. Connection has taken a backseat (even pre-public health crisis) to engagement and SaaS-enabled digital productivity. This is not a debate about the efficacy of remote work tools, after all, nobody complained when remote work virtually eliminated redundant meetings. The bigger question is: Can tech solve a problem it caused? The persistent shift towards spending time not with other people is a harbinger of unhappiness and long-term mental health crises. For context, loneliness costs America nearly $7 billion a year in the form of Medicare spending on seniors⁴. This is more than Medicare spends on arthritis and only slightly less than on high blood pressure. With loneliness on the rise in younger age groups, these figures can only be expected to grow. Education, productivity and employee retention will all suffer at the hands of prolonged social isolation.

With tech enabled jobs migrating from coastal cities to suburban areas like Ohio and Minnesota, we will see this problem magnify. The move could foreshadow massive effects on tech companies — office perks and dressed-down culture that sought to distance tech from 9-to-5’s sterile monotony are difficult to emulate over video chat and email. Even though studies suggest that remote work increases productivity in the short term, it can have deep effects on the psychological state of an individual, hurting an organization’s productivity in the long run. This means employees might become less ambitious and exhibit less initiative, which is the backbone of high growth startups.

“Humans are bonding mammals and have a deep seated need to connect. That’s harder than ever today, because our lives have been turned upside down. It will take empathy and imagination to create something new, but there’s never been a better time for tech products and services that can create a feeling of connection.” — Aaref Hilaly, Wing VC

The Happiness Coefficient

The happiness coefficient is a theoretical, objective metric for understanding how an innovation (product or business model) impacts happiness. Founders should view UX data and feedback like LTV:CAC ratios, what better KPI for positive social connection that measuring whether your product encourages people to breakdown social barriers. Startups optimizing for this metric should consider the following:

  • Social media as it is doesn’t work, increased use is correlated with increased loneliness

  • Passive consumption (liking, scrolling, muted video calls) doesn’t engage like active consumption. Around is moving the needle on video chat and Clubhouse promises to replicate the serendipity of conversation with live voice chat rooms.

  • Tech for mental health works (see Calm and Headspace), US meditation market projected to hit $2 billion by 2022

  • People translate happiness differently, see this viral example:

  • Socially distanced and asynchronous learning will deprive early learners of exposure to social interaction — how can edtech replicate meaningful relationships

  • Friendships can prescriptively reduce the risk of mortality

  • As always, founders should let needs inform design -> how do customers define connection? How does enterprise software encourage face to face connection?

  • Solutions are people forward, see Papa, which pairs older adults with college-aged students for companionship and assistance. Bevy is building community engagement software to power virtual experiences for enterprises (build the infrastructure)

  • Connection is culture forward: It’s impossible to build a solution for loneliness/isolation if your culture doesn’t underscore the human part of the equation

  • Build experiences, think Socialhaus at scale and less ‘X for Y’ copycat app

This is a far more complex problem than what most founders attempting to solve it have even imagined. Everyone defines happiness differently. Winning, community driven products will distance themselves from the echo chamber experiments of the mid digital era to broaden, instead of narrow, users’ personal and professional networks.

Tl;DR: Loneliness is a massive, expensive social phenomenon with dangerous health consequences. Social media and remote work have only exacerbated the problem. Build a prescriptive product to bolster the burgeoning ecosystem and couple productivity and efficiency with human-to-human connection. Track end user happiness as a bottom line metric.

An opportunity for founders


To make people feel more connected and less stressed, to increase personal touch, intimate moments, vulnerability and openness. These are the key problems that need to be tackled. There is opportunity to help people get to know themselves and other people better, propel them to make new friends or get in touch with old ones, decrease stress levels, and to feel like they are a part of a community.

Written by Scott Smith (sas694@cornell.edu) and Shaurya Mehta (smehta12@cornell.edu)

¹ https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/ ² Gerst-Emerson, K. and Jayawardhana, J. (2015) ‘RESEARCH AND PRACTICE. Loneliness as a Public Health Issue: The Impact of Loneliness on Health Care Utilization Among Older Adults’, American Journal of Public Health, 105(5), pp. 1013–1019. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2014.302427. ³ Stivers, R. (2004, p. 57) Shades of Loneliness : Pathologies of a Technological Society. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (New Social Formations). Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.library.cornell.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000tna&AN=107380&site=eds-live&scope=site (Accessed: 1 June 2020). ⁴ https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2017/10/medicare-spends-more-on-socially-isolated-older-adults.pdf https://www.vox.com/2020/3/12/21173938/coronavirus-covid-19-social-distancing-elderly-epidemic-isolation-quarantine

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