Americans are more lonely and socially disconnected than ever according to a new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General, and it’s a serious threat to their physical and mental health that demands urgent policy action.
A report from the Surgeon General says that social isolation’s effects on mortality are equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes every day. Social isolation (an objective measure of lacking connection to families, friends, and community) and loneliness (a subjective measure of feeling disconnected) contribute to a person having a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and dementia, and make people more susceptible to infectious diseases.
The report, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation”, found that about half of adults in the U.S. reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness, even before the pandemic.
"In the last few decades, we've just lived through a dramatic pace of change. We move more, we change jobs more often, we are living with technology that has profoundly changed how we interact with each other and how we talk to each other," Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told All Things Considered. “And you can feel lonely even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of your connections."
The advisory reported that people are spending less time with each other in person than the last 20 years, most pronounced in those aged 15-24 who had 70% less social interaction with their friends.
"We also know that for some kids, being online has been a way to find community at a time when many of them have not been able to," said Murphy. "What we need to protect against, though, are the elements of technology, and social media in particular, that seek to maximize the amount of time that our children are spending online at the expense of their in-person interactions."
In response, the advisory outlines the framework for a new national strategy. It is based on six foundational pillars, which are:
- Strengthening social infrastructure, which includes things like parks and libraries as well as public programs.
- Enacting pro-connection public policies at every level of government, including things like accessible public transportation or paid family leave.
- Mobilizing the health sector to address the medical needs that stem from loneliness.
- Reforming digital environments to "critically evaluate our relationship with technology."
- Deepening our knowledge through more robust research into the issue.
- Cultivating a culture of connection.
"Some people react to loneliness by withdrawing and getting quiet. Others react to loneliness by becoming irritable and angry, and they may lash out more," said Murphy. "That's why sometimes it takes a little time to really reflect on what's happening in our life. And sometimes we need somebody else to tell us, 'Hey, you've been withdrawing more' to help us understand that we might actually be dealing with loneliness."