<strong>Loneliness in the Age of Connection: The Paradox of Modern Relationships</strong>

Loneliness in the Age of Connection: The Paradox of Modern Relationships

By Clara Anteryd

Illustration by Célia Mortureux 

If you are among the many making it your 2024 New Year’s resolution to finally quit those cigarettes, I am here to add another to-do to your list. As U.S surgeon announces striking news that loneliness carries health risks as deadly as smoking, you might want to check your connections and make sure that you’re not piling two deadly things on top of each other.[1] The timing for this is admittedly a little comedic, just as the world thought we were done with our global pandemic; a new epidemic has presented itself. Loneliness has become an unavoidable issue in our society. But how is it that the chronically online generation, with access to anyone in the world at any time, feels lonelier than ever?

I’ve found myself frustrated about this in the past; having lived in five different countries in my twenties and having friends from all corners of the world, I should have so many people to reach out to. Still, I often feel lonely, even when I’m in a room full of people. It never hits me at first when I move somewhere new. Initially it’s exciting and full of news that I’m frequently updating my friends from my ‘last living stage’ on. But when life becomes as normal, stagnant, and busy as it gets with time, I notice myself become disconnected from people I used to spend all those days with – and that genuine time shared together fades. And with time, a like on their Instagram story and an occasional “How have you been?” text is all that remains. Don’t get me wrong, seeing everyone’s life updates on social media makes it feel like I’m close to them when in reality we’re far apart. And social media has led to so much good in my life. But the consequences of our generation’s online connections come at the expense of genuine connections, and their influence on our well-being is becoming impossible to ignore. 

Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone presented us with warnings of an in-person friendship recession already in 2000 [2]. At his time, it stemmed from the rapid decline in memberships of groups, organizations, sports clubs, etc in the 1960s. Additionally, he predicted that the internet would do a poor job of improving our connections and rather reinforce the anti-social tendencies of our society. With these decades of discussion, why does the issue demand our attention today? The reality is that loneliness persists, and its health implications have experienced a recent resurgence. Despite warnings and societal changes since the 1960s, loneliness continues to escalate. One reason for this could be that younger generations are buying houses later than their parents, are more likely to move across countries, travel more, and live an overall more mobile life than older generations. [3] The cost of living has also spiked, which frequently forces young people to change their locations more often. While that comes with a certain extent of freedom, it has also led to a demand for forming new relationships from scratch more frequently than before. And we lose contact with childhood friends, neighbours, and co-workers more often the more we change our location. This is inherently connected to the second reason why this is such an important topic today, the internet and social media. These allow us to basically carry out our whole life through a screen and you wouldn’t technically need to meet many of your friends in person. How many of us aren’t keeping at least one relationship alive through monthly Facetime calls? 

This increased mediatization of relationships has a huge effect on the quality, intimacy, and genuineness of the connections. With our changed communication patterns, you’re not even required to answer someone’s question quickly. We can read the message, wait a couple of hours and craft a perfect response. In difference to in person where you’d look really strange if you’d take an hour break before answering a question. This will lead to great differences in how genuine our connections with each other are, as the effort required to keep a chat, or a relationship online alive is decreasing. Seeing your friend’s posts and stories on social media might make it feel like you’ve caught up with them, and that you know what’s going on in their lives. This trend of sharing presents us with a unique opportunity of not even having to reach out to our friends to ask what they’ve been doing. This might seem contradictory to my argument that we’re not connected – surely if you see what your friends had for breakfast, you are connected without having to take up time in your busy schedule? But maybe that’s just the problem, as our ability to increase the quantity of our friends, ensuring that we’re not decreasing the quality is becoming harder. And I think we’re becoming less aware of the quality of our connections. [4] 

“And you can feel lonely even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of the connections.” – U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy [5]

You can see this on the commute. A place where so many people are together in one place, yet no one talks. It would be absolutely deranged if you decided to interrupt a stranger’s scrolling to try to make a friend. We all just put our eyes on the ground and make it to our destination in a mutual silence and agreement to avoid eye-contact. You have a lot of people around you, yet you can be so lonely there. And with our friends that we do see and spend actual time with – is it always that genuine? When was the last time you spent a whole dinner without looking at your phone just once? Even if you’re for once not checking your emails, liking pictures, or thinking about a text message you’ve just read – a picture must be taken for Instagram. Sometimes it feels like we’re there and we’re so happy to be in person together, yet we’re spending half of the time together on our phone – but similarly to on the commute – we’re in the same room. And then we can collectively comment on something we see on Instagram and feel very connected in our joint opinions about an ugly t-shirt. 

But I get, friendship is hard. It takes effort, time, and a lot of emotional investment. Maybe our generational over-stimulation, and the fact that our brain capacity limits us from having too many friends, manifest itself in a happiness for more, half-hearted connections. [4] We simply don’t have time. And adulthood is increasingly time-consuming. We live more expensive lives, are in debt, and everything rises in price except our salaries. We are forced to live in “the grind” and our society cherishes accomplishment and hard work up to the limit of a burn-out. So, squeezing in anything more than a weekly check-up text might not be possible, which doesn’t automatically make all our friendships worthless. It’s just worth keeping our mental health in check. We would all benefit from squeezing a little more human connection into our busy lives. 

I would hate to leave off on a completely dark note. The increased space that mental health and the negative effects of screen time are given in public discourse will hopefully lead to a change in trends. Further, third spaces – places where we can meet and socialize “authentically”, public spaces where you could find a community without things like spending too much money or requiring a membership – are believed to be a returning trend as it’s being increasingly considered in city planning, which will hopefully help combat the friendship rescission. 

On a final note, TALK to your friend, make spontaneously visiting your friends, playing cards, phone-free evenings, and communal cooking trendy again. 

1. Loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking, U.S. surgeon general says. (2023, May 2). PBS NewsHour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/loneliness-poses-health-risks-as-deadly-as-smoking-u-s-surgeon-general-says
2. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon and Schuster.
3. Mover’s Remorse. (n.d.). Porch. https://porch.com/resource/movers-remorse 
4. Msj, J. C. (2021, May 6). Social media is killing your friendships. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/how-social-media-is-ruining-relationships#Theres-a-capacity-for-friendships,-even-online
5. Summers, J. (2023, May 2). America has a loneliness epidemic. Here are 6 steps to address it. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/05/02/1173418268/loneliness-connection-mental-health-dementia-surgeon-general



Célia Mortureux is a second-year Communication Science Bachelor student, at the University of Amsterdam. She has a vivid passion for painting and music, always striving to learn more. She loves to play around with many mediums, like photography, digital illustration, and traditional model drawing. She can often be spotted sketching in cafes or parks on a sunny day with an overpriced oat chai latte. She is also politically engaged, particularly in ocean protection advocacy. You can follow her works at @doodling_un

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