So asks The Atlantic in a provocative essay by Stephen Marche. My initial reaction was not unlike a response to fingernails on a chalkboard:
I’m going to take only one example:
A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness.
First: The AARP Magazine study found that “A little over one-third (35%) of the survey respondents were categorized as lonely.” Not chronically lonely. Lonely.
Second: The AARP write up of the study used the adjective “chronically” but it also linked to the (very thin) primary source. Both characterizations cannot be correct; I would err on the side of the summary of the report rather than an article that merely references it. If I were writing for The Atlantic, I’d talk to AARP and get the complete study report and figure out how to let my readers know I’d read it. (Note: no out-bound links in Atlantic essays.)
Third: The AARP comparison was not between “similar groups” as Marche declares. AARP says the 2010 survey result was compared to “a similar survey a decade ago.” A similar survey implies that the questions were different. There is no information given about the GROUP in the prior survey.
Fourth: Missing from Marche’s essay is this interesting tidbit. Feelings of loneliness, per the AARP survey, declined with age. That is, fewer people who were 70 reported feeling lonely than people who were 45. So how much of any possible “increase” in people feeling lonely is simply the baby boomer bulge? In fact, Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, 2000) has argued that boomers are less socially engaged than prior generations. Putnam said that years before Facebook was birthed, much less years before boomers found the digital social network.
Fifth: Is it possible to get any more weasely than this? “According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject…” Well, yes it is. Marche goes on to assert that 20% of us are unhappy because of loneliness … but there is no trend data to put the percentage into context (and deflate the implication that the number is on the rise). Any measure of loneliness over time would be hard to fashion into a trend because the UCLA Loneliness Scale is on its third version (1978, 1980, 1996). Moreover, there is nothing in this cursory summary of research that explores demographics.
Sixth: the 2010 AARP study was conducted by Knowledge Networks using an online survey. No where does the study summary say that the instrument used was the UCLA Loneliness Scale.
Seventh: in 2010, many of us were still reeling from the recession brought about from the collapse of financial and real estate markets. In 2000, many of us were riding an economic boom. Look at income for the 2000s; to say it stalled is being kind. Ya think these economic conditions might have an affect on people’s general outlook and stress, both of which must relate to feelings of depression, despair and loneliness?
Eight: he paragraph closes with a claim (no evidence) of an epidemic of loneliness, a claim that’s even more weasely than the one in point five. This is argumentation?
I’ve written about 4.5 words for each one of Marche’s. See why I’m only picking one paragraph?
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OK. I have to pick one more.
JOHN CACIOPPO, THE director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, is the world’s leading expert on loneliness. In his landmark book, Loneliness, released in 2008, he revealed just how profoundly the epidemic of loneliness is affecting the basic functions of human physiology….To Cacioppo, Internet communication allows only ersatz intimacy. “Forming connections with pets or online friends or even God is a noble attempt by an obligatorily gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need,” he writes. “But surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing.” [The quotes are from p 260 of Loneliness, written by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick]
Here’s Cacioppo on the Internet, from the University of Chicago website:
Onto this landscape, social media erupted—Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn—exerting an influence more complicated, Cacioppo says, than some people might think. “If you’ve got a disability and you can’t get out, social networking is a great boon.” People who use the Internet to generate or enhance in-person relationships also benefit, he says. But when others use online connections to substitute for face-to-face ones, they become lonelier and more depressed. Lonely people are likely to use the Internet as a crutch, the nonlonely as a leverage. “So,” Cacioppo says, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
It’s not the tool. It’s why and how people use the tool.
Go back and read the headline, please. Which argument is it (Marche) making? Tool or human agency?
There’s nothing in that University of Chicago essay about an “epidemic” of loneliness. Nor does the word appear in the 2008 book he co-wrote, Loneliness (thank you Amazon “search inside this book”). In 2009, Cacioppo said that there was a “worldwide epidemic of disconnection” in an article for Psychology Today entitled Epidemic of Loneliness.
Finally, Marche does not define what he means by “loneliness.” It’s not straightfoward. From the NIH (2009):
Following Weiss (1973), it has become common to distinguish emotional and social loneliness (Drennan et al. 2008; Dykstra and Fokkema 2007; Perlman 2004; Van Baarsen et al. 2001). Emotional loneliness is missing an intimate attachment, such as a marital partner, and is accompanied by feelings of desolation and insecurity, and of not having someone to turn to. Social loneliness is lacking a wider circle of friends and acquaintances that can provide a sense of belonging, of companionship and of being a member of a community.
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Some other interesting findings about circumstances of loneliness:
Older adults reported lower rates of loneliness than those who were younger (43% of those age 45-49 were lonely compared to 25% of those 70+). Married respondents were less likely to be lonely (29%) compared to never-married respondents (51%), and those with higher incomes were less likely to be lonely than those with lower incomes.
Lonely respondents were less likely to be involved in activities that build social networks, such as attending religious services, volunteering, participating in a community organization or spending time on a hobby.
Almost half (45%) of those who had lived in their current residence for less than 1 year reported feeling lonely.
As I poked around, trying to find substance for the claim of an epidemic, I read this personal essay from a woman in the UK:
There is some evidence that the stigma against loneliness has increased in the past 50 years. If you read what is written about loneliness in the Forties, there’s not a lot of disdain and alarm.
But in more recent decades, loneliness changes shape — it becomes a disease, a short-coming, a flaw.
Now there’s an interesting line of thought. In our increasingly mediated world — where our lives have become like the movies — we are bombarded with images of smiling, happy people in the company of other smiling, happy people. Picture perfect bodies, skin, hair, tans. Yet more of us live alone than 20 years aog. More of us live further away from our families of origin. Each of these external factors can contribute to stress.
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It was the technological backlash embodied in the headline that set me off … and I don’t even like Facebook!
I can certainly understand the belief that more of us might be lonely today than in my parents’ generation.
But I’m not going to blame it on technology.