Our current epoch can be characterized as the Digital Age. The internet emerged over three decades ago, and technological advances have seeped into every aspect of our lives, breaking digital dualism and merging the physical and virtual worlds. This has impacted our social lives and how we interact with one another. Loneliness is a subjective human experience that has always troubled our wellbeing; however, the experience of loneliness is impacted by multiple factors such as cultural and socio-political expectations and the different ways people escape their suffering. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, digital technologies enabled us to adapt to being physically isolated from each other and sustain a form of significant social interaction. Escapism from issues people face in the real world has caused new addictions and forms of suffering, such as internet addiction and the hikikomori phenomenon. Therefore, there are benefits and detrimental aspects of technology, and observing those in social withdrawal who experience extreme loneliness enables us to better understand the health impacts these phenomena may have. One thing is for certain: human physical contact and social interactions are beneficial to mental and physical health as they are inherent human needs for survival.
In this digital age, our social interactions are mediated through “phones, video conferencing, text messaging, chat, or e-mail” (Van Erp et al., 2015). The internet and the digital world have seeped into every aspect of human life. In some sense, humans are now “super-communicators,” as technology has facilitated communication all around the world (Winder and Shaw, 2020). We are more connected than ever with family, friends, distant relatives, and friends of friends, yet in recent years there has been talk of a “loneliness epidemic” especially in rich countries (Ortiz, 2019). Loneliness has always troubled humans; it is a complex subjective human experience, not static or a constant feeling, which makes it difficult to measure and examine the different ways it may manifest itself (Scharf, 2015). Moreover, although physical isolation may induce loneliness, they are different phenomena and may both be beneficial at times as a way to reflect on oneself.
Loneliness and isolation, however, both affect mental and physical wellbeing, directly increasing morbidity and mortality rates. The recent Covid-19 pandemic forced us to social distance and self-isolate, which had negative impacts on people’s mental health even though we were more online and connected than ever before. The pandemic proved how merged our physical and digital worlds have become which raises questions about how differently we communicate nowadays and how the digitalization of our social lives relates to modern feelings of loneliness and experiences of social exclusion. I will first explore this through an evolutionary perspective to better understand humans’ need for physical, face-to-face social interactions and the importance of touch. Second, I will highlight the role the internet and social network services played during the pandemic and how they impacted feelings of loneliness at a time where people were forcefully physically isolated from one another. Finally, I will explore internet addiction and the hikikomori (social withdrawal) phenomenon which has surpassed Japan’s border and is present worldwide to better understand how to progress with our technological advances and their influence on our wellbeing.
Humans are part of the biological order of primates, which are a very sociable species––humans are a prime example. Indeed, grooming amongst humans is not just for hygienic purposes but to increase social bonding which differentiates humans from other species (Dunbar, 2008). The evolutionary explanation for the importance of grooming between humans is that it directly increases survival rates as it provides a “basis for alliances.” Moreover, physical contact and the sense of touch conveys meaning and emotions that “the accompanying speech simply cannot do” (Van erp et al., 2015). Our brains have continued to expand since our split with chimpanzees since we have developed a greater reliance on community; our brain size correlates with our high level of social interaction (Winder and Shaw, 2010). We have come to rely on face-to-face human interactions to understand each other better as touch is our primary non-verbal method of communication. This implies that touch deprivation is real and has negative consequences on one’s mental and physical state. Touch is the first sense humans develop as embryos in their mother’s womb, which highlights how crucial human physical contact is in our day-to-day lives (Van Erp et al., 2015).
Today, our social interactions are as present online as they are offline. Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson argued that the physical world and the digital world are separate, however, the “digital dualism” theory is no longer accurate in 2022. In fact, our physical and virtual worlds have merged; for instance, smartphones can be seen as the extension of the body as they are used every day. Thus, modern technology has allowed for us to have meaningful social interactions online. However, in the human-computer interaction, the sense of touch between human skin is lost. The human skin is a “social organ” and has special receptors which recognize human touch, and skin stimulation directly impacts hormone levels (Van Erp et al., 2015). For example, if someone receives skin stimulation of some kind, such as a hand squeeze or strokes prior to an operation, that action alone releases stress hormones. Thus, “our touch capabilities are very complex,” which implies that no mediated touch will match the impact of real skin to skin stimulation (Silva and Parsons, 2020).
Touch deprivation, or being “touch-starved,” is linked to feelings of loneliness and being physically isolated. The elderly suffer greatly from this, and the future of communication between humans and robots may reduce this suffering. Today, artificial entities can either produce or interpret touch. A recent study on the effect of social robots on the elderly’s well-being highlighted that they would want a robot capable of responding to touch and producing touch (Hutson et al., 2011). Therefore, a robot with human-like abilities to feel when receiving touch as well as when they produce it could benefit the elderly’s wellbeing. However, this is yet to be achieved and communication is a two-way street, so robots would need to be capable of receiving affection and producing touch.
Technology cannot substitute “interpersonal communication” between people actively aware of each other’s presence, which remains to be the “sine qua non of relating” between humans (Ledbetter, 2014). This explains why physical isolation induces feelings of loneliness. The subjective and negative experience of loneliness impacts not only the individual but all society. The person suffering from loneliness experiences a reduced quality of life, premature mortality, and a broad range of physical and mental health conditions such as sleep disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Additionally, loneliness is contagious, affecting the family, friends and community of the lonely person, which reinforces the fact that it is a public health issue as “individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships” (Scharf, 2015).
Although the Digital Age may have facilitated communication, lonely people and those who suffer from social withdrawal may find themselves trapped within the digital world––where you can have whatever you desire delivered to your door and minimize your face-to-face social interactions. The British government has put in place defense science technology laboratories to tackle issues of identity and social construction within digital realms (Wilson and Lyndsey, 2017). The difference between loneliness and isolation is that the former is a subjective experience, a “perceived social isolation,” while the latter is a social and physical reality, so it is important to not confuse the two even though they are often interrelated (Silva and Parsons, 2020). For instance, extreme loneliness is experienced by seniors and adolescents who are much more surrounded by friends and family and not physically isolated.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced people of all ages to social distance and isolate, which had negative consequences on people’s mental and physical health in terms of feelings of loneliness. We are extremely dependent on others in our day-to-day activities, much more than we realized pre-pandemic. One reason for this is the division of labor and service industry that facilitate our lives (Winder and Shaw, 2020). Thus, normal life came to a halt as governments enforced social distancing measures and periods of physical isolation, meaning many of our lives moved to the digital world. This also highlighted how dependent we are on modern technology in domains of work, education, gathering information, shopping, and especially our social lives. Digital technologies enabled us to remain in contact and still have significant interactions while physically apart. In fact, during the Covid-19 pandemic, people felt more socially connected through technology with people they usually had limited interactions with (Silva and Parsons, 2020).
The pandemic underlined that those most affected by the feeling of loneliness were the elderly and adolescents. In June 2020, 14% of the British population suffered from lockdown loneliness, and our evolutionary need for physical social interactions explains why life felt so unnatural for many during this time (Shah, 2020). In 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics stated loneliness was “the most common stressor during the COVID-19 pandemic” even though we were able to connect online because “our full spectrum of relational practices and places are disrupted” (Silva and Parsons, 2020). Therefore, social media and other networking websites, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, enabled us to rapidly adapt to being isolated and lonely. Moreover, applications like Headspace or Quarantine Chat were popular during that time to discuss mental health and suffering from loneliness (Shah, 2020).
A survey from 2020 of 2,165 Belgian youth aged 13 to 19 aimed to analyze social media as a coping mechanism during Covid-19 (Cauberghe et al., 2021). Adolescents rely greatly on social interactions with peers and family as a source of happiness and security. Indeed, “social comparison processes” are automatically activated in adolescents to gain approval, to fit in their social environment, and to appease feelings of doubt. This is part of why they are also more vulnerable to feeling lonely and why they suffer more from loneliness than from feelings of anxiety. The survey revealed that adolescents spent more time on the internet during lockdown and that it served as a tool to mediate social interactions and cope humorously with the situation. In addition, social media proved to be an effective way of self-regulating their moods during lockdown and witnessing others having similar experiences revealed levels of stress. However, the study also highlighted that there was no direct correlation between social media usage and increased feelings of happiness as it did not substitute for in-person social interactions, which are crucial for an adolescent’s development and wellbeing. Thus, social media has been an effective coping mechanism for young people suffering from loneliness during the pandemic, but it is not a solution for loneliness.
This makes us wonder how seniors were using digital technologies to cope with their own feelings of loneliness. Indeed, an issue many elderly people face today is the digital divide between their generation and those who grew up with digital technologies. The elderly may find themselves on the other side of the spectrum and face difficulties grasping the ways social media and the internet can be used to communicate with others. Part of solving the issue of feeling lonely in the 21st century is increasing digital literacy in aging adults (Scharf, 2015).
A social phenomenon known as hikikomori, or social withdrawal, emerged in the 1970s in Japan, was named in the 1990s, and can now be found globally (Kato et al., 2020). Individuals with hikikomori suffer from feelings of loneliness and social exclusion. They do not work or go to school, and they often rely on their parents financially to avoid being out in the real world. The name hikikomori was created shortly after the birth of the Internet; the condition and the information society brought about by the internet are related, as people who suffer from this condition can escape into digital worlds from their bedrooms. In the case of hikikomori, the reasons for seeking long-term physical isolation are extremely complex and usually tied to the immense societal expectations and pressures within Japanese culture. A common thread between these individuals is that they do not conform to these expectations, and they experience crippling social anxiety because of their past experiences in social settings, whether due to abusive family households or being bullied from an early age at school. Suicide rates among teenagers have been increasing in Japan and this is largely due to the expectations set by parents and schools and mental health being a very taboo topic (Silva and Parsons, 2020). Indeed, social expectations heavily impact the number of people who suffer from loneliness as they constitute contagious fears and have a domino effect on individuals’ self-worth, their families, friendships and romantic relationships.
In recent years, organizations and unconventional schools for children have opened across Japan to help futoko, children who tend to isolate themselves, and prevent rising cases of hikikomori (101 East, 2020). The Japanese government estimates there are over 1 million people with hikikomori in the country and it is seen as a national malady, yet it is not discussed in families of individuals with the condition.
The interesting aspect about loneliness felt by the “hermits of the Information Age” is that it develops over time. First, they feel relieved in their physical isolation because they do not have to deal with the initial stressors that pushed them to social withdrawal. Similar to those who suffer from extreme loneliness, it is hard to track down and measure the number of people who suffer from complete social withdrawal; they do not partake in any social activity and are completely excluded from society (Kato et al., 2018). One is considered to have hikikomori if they have not had any social ties outside their homes in over 6 months.
For those with hikikomori, their room becomes their sanctuary, a place ridden from abuse and judgment, and the internet becomes a self-help tool with virtual socialization and infinite possibilities to distract themselves from their feelings of loneliness (Kato et al., 2020). They tend to develop an attachment to digital worlds which is similar to people who have depression and use alcohol to escape their condition. Thus, “internet addiction” and being hikikomori are intrinsically linked in the 21st century. Psychiatrist Alan Teo conducted a survey in 2019 involving 487 Japanese students and found a correlation between excessive internet use and hikikomori, blaming the “the black-hole allure of techno-realms’ (Singh, 2022). Those who suffer from internet addiction and those with hikikomori both aim to escape the physical world and its stressors as well as their own feelings. This can lead these socially withdrawn individuals to experience social and mental death, which is why hikikomori is considered a psychopathological condition.
Internet addiction is characterized by an excessive use of the internet and clinical features of addiction such as: “preoccupation, compulsive behavior, lack of control, and functional impairment” (Kato et al., 2020). The issue nowadays is that the internet is present everywhere, not just on our laptops but through the smartphones we use and interact with every day. Therefore, it is extremely easy to fall into the trap of becoming dependent on these objects as they are normalized in modern ways of living to use for work, education, shopping, socializing, etc. Although hikikomori is more present among males in Japan, the United States and Europe, dependency on social network services is also prevalent among women (Kato et al., 2020).
A major issue found in digital escapism is the fact that these virtual worlds of video games, anime, and social network services are controlled environments, contrasting the unpredictable real world. Because “now society has no risk, no direct communication,” as Dr Kato says, there is a decrease in children and young adults’ risk of facing failure, which is detrimental to their mental health as well as interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, having no face-to-face contact with others increases the risk for a variety of poor health outcomes (Silva and Parsons, 2020).
Hikikomori-like cases have been reported globally in places with different socio-economic backgrounds, such as Hong Kong, the USA and India, meaning it has crossed the limits of “a culture-bound phenomenon” and thus deserves international attention (Kato et al., 2018). The Digital Age is the major contributing factor that has transformed communication from the direct to the increasingly indirect and physically isolating. To prevent internet addiction in children as life is increasingly becoming digital, it is extremely important to observe the patterns and behaviors associated with internet use. Furthermore, safety measures should be put in place to limit internet consumption at a young age. An example of this is the Chinese government’s plan to limit time playing video games to three hours a week for young children (Zhai, 2021). At the same time, it is important not to demonize technology as it has facilitated our lives in many ways. These rules apply to companies that provide the online games and would prevent social isolation induced by internet dependency. However, it is important to not demonize technology as digital realms may contribute to develop strengths that can be applied in real life. For instance, the video game Pokémon Go forced users to leave their house, helping those in social withdrawal (Kato, 2016). Researchers have suggested that games like Pokémon Go, which intertwine a virtual world and a real physical environment, include “Pokéstops” at support centers (Singh, 2022).
Loneliness and isolation became universal experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic but living in the Digital Age has enabled us to sustain social interactions despite physical distance. However, loneliness, unlike physical isolation, is a subjective experience influenced by cultural and socio-political expectations. Therefore, an anthropological perspective on the issue of loneliness and isolation sheds light beyond the individual’s experience, observing how it is experienced in different cultural settings and environments both virtual and physical. It examines which societal structures and environments contribute to feelings of loneliness and the desire to withdraw from society, as they represent public health issues, not individual ones.
Digital technologies have proven to be both beneficial and detrimental to mental health. Thus, it is crucial to observe how humans navigate their social lives in digital realms and input measures to prevent phenomena such as internet addiction and hikikomori. Those in complete social withdrawal have not chosen their condition, but this might change as our lives increasingly move to the digital world, and factors such as climate change may lead to intentionally staying inside more often. The Covid-19 pandemic and the mental state of those who are socially withdrawn reiterate the importance of physical and face-to-face contact for our survival and wellbeing. But despite its sometimes–negative effects, technology may also be how people escape loneliness and isolation. As prime minister Taro Aso pointed out with Pokémon Go’s therapeutic powers, one thing is for certain: we must evolve with technology and adjust our behaviors towards it so that we can benefit from it (Singh, 2022).
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