By Chyung Eun-ju and Joel Cho
In the modern age of rapid technological advancements, our lives have become increasingly intertwined with the digital world. From the inception of the internet, it has been taking over our lives at a rapidly growing speed. So much so that now we find ourselves online at almost every moment of our waking lives.
The world feels big, or rather eclectic. These days we feel overwhelmed and disoriented with the pace of digital advancement. In the three worlds ― physical, digital, and virtual ― we take on different identities.
With constant technological advancements, virtual communication and networking tools have changed the way we connect. However, it seems that this ultra-connected digital world we have created has brought with it a new and unique form of loneliness.
The digital revolution has undeniably enriched our lives in numerous ways, giving us access to a never-ending source of information, breaking down territorial boundaries for social interactions and allowing instant interactions across any user around the globe. However, with it, the way we interact with each other, and the world has shifted as well.
One of the most alarming facets of this digital age is the gradual shift away from in-person communication. Smartphones, social media platforms and virtual communication apps have made physical presence optional, and in some cases, even irrelevant. So while these technologies have bridged geographical gaps, they’ve created a void in the authenticity of our connections, resulting in an increased feeling of loneliness within the unique context of the digital age.
A study from an article in Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine titled “Associations between social media use and loneliness in a cross-national population: do motives for social media use matter?” found that “more time spent on social media was associated with higher levels of loneliness, even when adjusting for age group, living with spouse/partner, employment, and health worry” and that although recognizing the limitations of the study conducted, they were able to conclude that “statistically significant associations were shown between more time spent daily on social media and higher levels of loneliness.”
So this “digital loneliness” can be perceived as a novel form of isolation arising from our growing reliance on technology for social interaction. It’s an eerie paradox — individuals now feel lonelier despite having larger amounts of social interactions with hundreds, even thousands of virtual friends or followers. This paradox reveals the not-always-great reality of our hyper-connected world.
According to the “Social Security in Statistics 2022” reported by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the amount of people living alone has more than doubled in the past two decades. In a poll conducted by the ministry, 21.3 percent of a sample of 9,471 single-member households faced the risk of a lonely death. People in their 50s were the majority at risk of lonely death. However, even the youth were found to live a disconnected life, with difficulty conducting a normal life. To be more exact, 3.1 percent of the Koreans in the age group of 19 to 39 were considered lonely. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family even stepped up to support isolated young South Koreans with 650,000 Korean won (about $500) per month to improve their mental and emotional stability. This is interesting as South Korea is known to be a tech-savvy nation with soaring smartphone and internet usage, and the conducted survey offers a revealing glimpse into how technology impacts social well-being. These findings in South Korea resonate globally, signaling that digital loneliness is not an isolated problem but rather a symptom of the broader societal shifts brought about by technology.
Even this Chuseok holiday, several elderly people queued to eat their holiday meal at a soup run for social connection, as most of them lost connection with their families. Rather than filling their stomachs, most of the elderly population seemed to come for emotional support, as the soup run was full of people to interact with.
It’s now a widely accepted fact that in the digital world, we craft meticulously curated profiles, presenting a sanitized and selected view of our lives. Social media platforms not only compel us to showcase idealized versions of ourselves, fostering feelings of inadequacy, but they also normalize the idea that social interaction does not require physical presence.
Additionally, the surge in online communication tools and virtual meetings, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has irrevocably altered the dynamics of our interpersonal relationships. These tools are lifelines in a socially distanced world like the one we were experiencing not long ago, but they, too, contribute to digital loneliness. The absence of physical presence, subtle nonverbal cues and the emotional depth of face-to-face interaction leave individuals yearning for authentic connections. Yet, we may never go back to a social dynamic with physical connections, and maybe the solution lies in a digital aspect.
A South Korean startup, BlueSignum created a social robot in 2019 that provides emotional support in order to help people living alone. The founders developed an AI engine that examines users’ emotional states so that the robot could respond accordingly to particular situations. When we helped our elder relatives use ChatGPT, most of them said it helped alleviate the pain of loneliness. So perhaps, a social robot could be the solution to the not so prevelent availability of physical interactions.
As we enter a period where social interactions are based on digital technology, the metaverse may be the mainstream society for social connection. This may be the loneliest period in human history. In the process of digitizing our physical social interactions, we can create or live in worlds that cater to our personal needs, allowing our community to be divided among different digital worlds or realms. Even now, we have a greater ability to customize our lifestyles compared to the past, resulting in the creation of a wider array of niche communities. Considering the implications of an even more social digital immersion is quite scary but also seems like the only solution left to the paradox of digital loneliness.
Chyung Eun-ju ([email protected]) is studying for a master’s degree in marketing at Seoul National University. Her research focuses on digital assets and the metaverse. Joel Cho ([email protected]) is a practicing lawyer specializing in IP and digital law.