Modern Loneliness in an Overconnected World
By Jenn Riegert
Written by Jenn Riegert
Americans are known to be independent people, proud of our work ethic and ability to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” But there’s been a tension building for many years and post-covid, it’s difficult not to notice the challenges people are experiencing. Reports often highlight ever-increasing levels of loneliness with approximately one-in-two adults experiencing perceived isolation and declining connection to community.
The good news is savvy brands, especially ones built on a foundation of connection, have an opportunity to build stronger relationships with their consumers, inspire community and help combat modern loneliness in this overconnected world.
In May 2023, the US Surgeon General issued an advisory about the dangers of loneliness, calling it a “major health issue in America,” and citing declining mental health, increased risk of premature death, decreased productivity and other issues as evidence. With the increasing connectivity from social networks, mobile phones and other devices, why are people feeling less connected and what role can brands play in combating this challenge?
Given the role brands play in consumer’s lives, we believe they have a responsibility to consider how they can positively impact the community of people they serve.
Unfortunately, the challenges associated with loneliness aren’t new. Before the pandemic, approximately 46 percent of Americans reported feeling sometimes or always alone and nearly 2 in 3 daily social media users said they often feel lonely.
Loneliness also isn’t a uniquely American issue, but it seems to be more prevalent in modern U.S. life, centered on the internet, which makes being connected easy. But as digital connection increased during the past few decades in the U.S., we’ve also seen a decline in participation in community organizations — from faith groups to recreational leagues. Additionally, economic instability, increased use of social media, strained health care systems and changing values were among the factors leading to an increasing sense of disconnection and isolation, even before the pandemic that physically separated people.
Although the levels of loneliness were already increasing in 2017, researchers were only beginning to measure its effects beyond emotional wellbeing and to look beyond the older generations to consider how loneliness was impacting Millennials and Gen Z. While analyzing pandemic and post-pandemic mental health issues, researchers uncovered growing evidence that loneliness has profound implications for physical health. People who are socially disconnected have a 29 percent greater risk of heart disease, a 32 percent greater risk of stroke and for older adults, a 50 percent greater risk of dementia.
In response, social services organizations began partnering with health insurance companies and others to increase social connection, hoping it could improve people’s lives and even reduce hospital visits. Organizations such as Unicef launched the Global Coalition for Youth Mental Well-Being, uniting leaders from the public and private sectors, including brands, to combine their resources to help 30 million young people across 30 countries by 2030. Similarly, MTV Entertainment Group led the inaugural Mental Health Youth Action Forum at the White House in May 2022. Participating companies such as Zoom, Spotify and Pinterest, committed to amplifying campaigns created by 30 youth activists for the cause.
In the Surgeon General’s 2023 proposal, Murphy stated: “We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation. It will take all of us – individuals and families, schools and workplaces, health care and public health systems, technology companies, governments, faith organizations, and communities – working together to destigmatize loneliness and change our cultural and policy response to it.”
In response to the surgeon general’s report, Eric Liu, the CEO of Citizen University – a Seattle-based nonprofit that aims to build community and civic awareness nationwide, stated, “So much of the challenge that we have right now is far upstream of electoral politics and policy, it is a culture problem. That’s why I think one of the things that’s so important about the surgeon general’s report is creating a culture of connection.”
Brands often play an important role in culture and help connect people with similar values to others. When you see brands such as Harley Davidson, Jeep or Nike in public, you’ll usually find people who love freedom, adventure or sports nearby. Even non-tech brands can make choices, in line with their values, that support positive interactions among consumers who share similar values.
Another example of a brand that builds great connection among consumers is Patagonia. What makes Patagonia stand apart is their ability to connect all their business decisions – such as the quality of inventory, the commitment to repairing their products and regularly offering opportunities for people to take action – to their values. Their choices regularly inspire consumers to join together to make a difference, not just to purchase their products, and people who identify with those values feel more connected to the brand and to other like-minded people.
So what can modern brands that care about supporting their consumers and building authentic connectivity do?
- Discuss your brand’s core values and determine how you can authentically promote human connection for your employees and customers.
- Consider brand activations that create communities around your consumers’ common lifestyles and interests.
- Determine whether there are tools or resources that can help your consumers connect with others.
- Look for cross-generational connections your brand can facilitate.
As humans who help brands connect with people, it can seem challenging to determine how to best build community and connection with others. It starts with authenticity and a hard look at your core values. Post-pandemic, consumers are increasingly looking for authentic connections. Brands can bring people together and help them feel connected to others with a shared sense of purpose and belonging, either digitally or in real life, are the ones making a difference.