We need more research to confirm or dispute the first study to claim a causal connection between social media use and depression and loneliness

A new psychology study argues that reduced time spent with social media leads to less depression:

For the study, Hunt and her team studied 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania over a number of weeks. They tested their mood and sense of well-being using seven different established scales. Half of the participants carried on using social media sites as normal. (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat did not respond to request for comment.)

The other half were restricted to ten minutes per day for each of the three sites studied: Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, the most popular sites for the age group. (Use was tracked through regular screen shots from the participants’ phones showing battery data.)

Net result: Those who cut back on social media use saw “clinically significant” falls in depression and in loneliness over the course of the study. Their rates of both measures fell sharply, while those among the so-called “control” group, who did not change their behavior, saw no improvement.

This isn’t the first study to find a link between social media use, on the one hand, and depression and loneliness on the other. But previous studies have mainly just shown there is a correlation, and the researchers allege that this shows a “causal connection.”

I’m guessing this study will get a good amount of attention because of this claim. Here is how this should work in the coming months and years:

  1. Other researchers should work to replicate this study. Do the findings hold with undergraduate students elsewhere in similar conditions?
  2. Other researchers should tweak the conditions of the study in a variety of ways. Move beyond undergraduates to both younger and older participants. (Most social media research involves relatively young people.) Change the national context. Expand the sample size. Lengthen the study beyond three weeks to look at longer-term effects of social media use.
  3. All the researchers involved need time and discussion to reach a consensus about all of the work conducted under #1 and #2 above. This could come relatively soon if most of the studies agree with the conclusions or it could take quite a while if results differ.

All together, once a claim like this has empirical backing, other researchers should follow up and see whether it is correct. In the meantime, it will be hard for the public, the companies involved, and policymakers to know what to do as studies build upon each other.

“Minister of loneliness” will get to work

This may be a new governmental role in the 21st century: minister of loneliness.

On Wednesday, the U.K. made political history by creating an entirely new, untried political role: the world’s first “minister for loneliness.” The post is designed to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life” for many people…

The scope and effects of loneliness are unquestionably devastating. Half a million British people over 60 only talk to another person once a week or less. People who self-report as lonely are more likely to experience dementia, heart disease, and depression. When it comes to life expectancy, the long-term health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day

So what could a minister do to ease this situation? The issues spread across a very wide range of policy areas—and that’s kind of the point. A minister for loneliness could potentially have a trans-governmental scope, pressing policy-makers, businesses, and individuals to look at a whole range of decisions through the lens of loneliness.

I was reminded of this recently by a book that suggested cities can contribute to profound social isolation for some. And pair this with the idea that social media can lead to isolation and you have much of the modern world: urbanized and Facebooked.

I would be interested to see if such a minister sticks to small changes across a range of social spheres or tackles some of the broader issues like the individualism and autonomy promoted through the last few centuries of Western life. Is there any chance a Western government would promote less individualism in order to help promote less loneliness? Or, put another way, what would be the tipping point to convince a public that they should give some individual liberty in order to together tackle social isolation?

Will smart cities necessarily be lonely cities?

This piece thinks about how smart cities might affect social relationships and the prognosis is not good:

By 2050, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in so-called “smart cities.” These are metropolitan areas where everything will be digitally connected. Today, some people have “smart” thermostats, refrigerators, or smoke detectors. Tomorrow, we’ll have smart hospitals, farms, and highways, and it’s likely they’ll all talk to one another. Connected devices will monitor everything from air quality to energy usage and traffic congestion…

We can also expect more part-time work, distance working, and the blurring of our work and personal lives. Some worry that the rise of robots could force governments to legislate for quotas of human workers.

But city-dwellers will see incremental changes outside of their workspace, too. Thanks to self-service checkouts and home delivery services, technology is creating less of a need for us to actually interact with those around us. Message bots, like Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa, will soon be able to suggest restaurants, hotels, and other local landmarks. This is already happening in places like Tel Aviv, where everyone over the age of 13 can receive personalized data, such as traffic information, and can access free municipal Wi-Fi in 80 public zones. Populations will be encouraged to make good use of these ever-personalized digital services, since this gives companies our precious data, which will be integral to smart cities…

But it’s doubtful that these interventions will be enough to counteract further encroachment of technology on cities’ infrastructure. Resistance needs to be on a grander scale. One solution may lie in the preservation of public spaces such as parks, community centers, cafes, and shops. “If cities are to remain viable places for people to develop the strong associational and social life fundamental to healthy human existence they must incorporate a range of public spaces and ‘third’ places outside of work and home, in which urban citizens can come together,” writes John Bingham-Hall, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science.

I’ll throw out two counterpoints that might lessen the concern:

  1. While new technology could move us toward more private lives, it doesn’t necessarily have to. We don’t have to end up in a futuristic setting and narrative as depicted in Her. Such claims have been made for centuries with the spread of industrialization and urbanization: new technologies would reduce the humanness of life. Think of the Luddites and their concerns about changes to manufacturing in the early 1800s. Marx was also worried about the alienation being brought about by the forces of industrialization and urbanization. At the same time, we could theoretically end up with more time for social interaction if these new technologies free us up. We’ve heard these promises for decades: people won’t have to work as much or take care of their possessions because it can be done for them. (Put it this way: what does it say about us that even though we have devices to help us reduce our labor, we continue to labor a lot? Are we trying to escape more social interaction?) I would ask: are we blaming the technology too much or should we think harder about how we could utilize what has been invented for our common good?
  2. Early sociologists were concerned about the individual being lost in the big cities of the modern world or noted that city life was a major change from small village life to which many in the world had grown accustomed. (See the work of Simmel, Durkheim, and Tonnies.) Yet, cities continue to attract people and social life continues – even if it has changed in certain ways. Still today, it seems that it might be important that people are around other people regularly (which commonly happens in dense cities), even if they don’t have strong relationships with many people. I would ask: is it really cities that are in danger of being lonely places or would the technology affect everyone in similar ways in coming decades?

Smart cities don’t have to be lonely cities. We could be lonely all over the place or we could make decisions about how to direct technology toward things we might want (such as increased or deeper social connections).

The negative effect of loneliness on health

Loneliness is not just a social or emotional condition; it affects physical health.

The scourge of loneliness has been with us since time immemorial, but only in recent years has its toll on human health gained appreciation. New research shows that feeling lonely or socially isolated bumps up a person’s average risk for coronary heart disease and stroke — two of the developed world’s most prolific killers — by 50%.

As a risk factor for heart attack, clogged arteries or stroke, those statistics put loneliness on a par with light smoking, anxiety and occupational stress. And they make social isolation a more powerful predictor of such vascular diseases than are either high blood pressure or obesity…

The new research, published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal’s publication, Heart, aggregated the findings of 23 separate studies that asked people to characterize their level of social engagement. Each of those studies then tracked participants for periods ranging from 3 to 21 years and noted whether they had a first stroke or were newly diagnosed with, or died from, coronary heart disease…

As a result, it’s hard to know whether loneliness is a contributor to, the result of, or just another symptom of poor health. And for the same reason, it’s hard to know whether programs aimed at getting the socially isolated to re-engage will improve their health, and how.

Social relationships matter, not just for using weak ties to get a job but also to improve your health.

The article hints at interventions at the end, primarily suggesting that doctors can ask about social networks and relationships. However, how possible is it for doctors to incorporate more social factors into their analysis, whether that involves asking people about social behaviors or recommending treatment? Doesn’t a finding like this suggest we need a more holistic approach to health that would incorporate physical conditions as well as emotional and social conditions? Perhaps we need more of the biopsychosocial approach. Maybe this requires having multiple professionals – doctors, social workers, psychologists – working together as units to address conditions.

Laundromats as “iconic places of loneliness”

Several experts suggest urban laundromats can be lonely, depressing places:

They’re often harshly lit and filled with strangers — weary, industrial where no one really wants to be. One could say the same of train stations, banks and other public places.

But there’s something deeper going on with Laundromats, mental health experts say, that can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety in even the most stoic dryer jockey.

Antoinette D’Orazio, a licensed mental health counselor in Hartsdale, New York, who specializes in depression, has found that Laundromats can often trigger toxic emotions…

Roger Salerno, a psychoanalyst and professor of sociology at Pace University who has written books exploring urban alienation and estrangement, calls Laundromats “iconic places of loneliness,” in part because they rouse up subconscious longings for domestic stability…

In general, Salerno added, women are more susceptible to this Laundromat-induced loneliness than men, because women have been historically more socialized toward domestic activities and the concept of having a family to care for.

This fits with some larger images of cities as lonely places: you have to go somewhere else to do laundry and there may be people around but you don’t know anyone. People may think they are good neighbors but few people are going to enjoy neighborly interactions while doing laundry.

I could think of several ways to help limit these issues:

  1. Make sure housing units have to have at least washing machines. Or, perhaps more Americans should have washer/dryer combos in one machine like many Europeans. This would be a cost to landlords and could be a space issue in many expensive neighborhoods. Additionally, this contributes to the privatization of domestic space – but perhaps this process is already irreversible in the United States.
  2. Some laundromats could set themselves apart by being more social places. The goal is to have a lot of machines yet why not charge a little more and host social activities?

New art exhibit on suburban houses depicts suburban isolation

A new art exhibit in Arlington, Virginia appears to trade in a common critique of American suburbs:

My House is not my House is an ongoing series of animations dealing with themes of isolation, suburbia, and Western culture. Nature tries to carve out an existence amongst these seemingly unoccupied homes while time passes and nothing seems to change. The animations not only speak about the relationships between humans and nature, but also about the way humans relate with each other. The series began as a pair of animated illustrations, expanding on Michael Salter’s work depicting life in America. In 2010, the animations were expanded and became a series of four high definition “digital paintings.” My House is not my House is a collaboration that is carried out over the internet, the narratives are generated together through email and digital storyboards. Illustrations are by Salter, animation and sound by Coleman.

Are there any serious artists, accepted by the critical art community, who paint positive scenes of suburbia?

The Internet is not an information superhighway or global village; rather, a “drab cul-de-sac”

In an interesting article titled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”, author Stephen Marche makes his point by comparing the Internet to suburbs:

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.

Marche is discussing the disillusion associated with the Internet: a good number of people thought it would provide unprecedented access to information, more global connections, and stronger democracies and civil societies. Instead, Marche argues that it is like the suburbs. They both provide the illusion of a “good life” but with little depth behind the happy facade of McMansions or Facebook. Marche should finish the metaphor: perhaps we need an online way of connecting that is more equivalent to an urban neighborhood, perhaps the kind idealized by Jane Jacobs.

I wonder if Marche would be willing to work with the idea that the Internet may not be the best or all it could be but it is a necessary adaptation for the modern world. This is similar to an argument I’ve made before about suburbs: I think many Americans know that they aren’t all they are said (or sold) to be (see a recent survey where a majority of Americans say they would move right now if they could). However, the suburbs beat the alternatives of small town life (too confining, not enough independence, not enough amenities or jobs) or city living (perceived as being too dangerous and anonymous). Similarly, it would be truly hard to live these days without using the Internet or even not be a member of Facebook as these are becoming (and have become for many) the basic ways of finding out information, buying goods, and yes, “connecting” with others.