As part of Loughborough’s Christmas campaign to raise awareness of loneliness during the festive holidays, Professor Mike Wilson writes about how technology has the power to both isolate us and bring us closer together.
Over the past four years, along with my colleagues in the storytelling research team in the School of Arts, English and Drama at Loughborough, I have been involved in a project with social psychologists, health psychologists, computer scientists and designers, looking at loneliness in the digital age.
There is a popular concern, reflected in the media, that just as technology enables us to become more connected with people across the world, those we previously would never have had the opportunity to get to know, we are ironically also becoming more disconnected at the same time.
We spend an increasing amount of our lives in an online world and, consequently, less time on real-time interactions with those closest to us – which, during the festive period, is quite key for those who enjoy the traditional values of a ‘family Christmas’.
There is concern that this is particularly affecting young people who are at risk of becoming increasingly emotionally illiterate and less empathic, leading to greater feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Research shows, however, that it is not technology per se that leads to loneliness, but when online relationships are used as a means of replacing offline relationships, this can lead to less healthy outcomes.
This is particularly important at times, like Christmas, when families traditionally gather together.
The research suggests that feelings of loneliness often emerge from a disruption in a person’s habitual social networks and practices.
So, young people, whose social networks might particularly depend on daily contact with peers at school or university, may be especially vulnerable during holiday periods.
And for international students, these feelings may be particularly acute if they are unable to travel home at Christmas time and are simultaneously isolated from their immediate friendship circles and their families.
Our project was about trying to use technology to help people who were at risk of suffering from occasional episodes of loneliness, including carers, students and those who were required to work alone ‘in the field’ (in our case, we were working with mobile telecommunications engineers).
We are all natural storytellers and our ability to tell and listen to stories is not only the way in which we make sense of our experiences and the world around us, but also how we build and project our social identities and forge our relationships.
It is essential to our social well-being as a storytelling species.
We are homo narrans (human beings that tell stories).
One of the things that emerged from working with all the groups that we engaged with was that loneliness was experienced most intensely when the opportunities for storytelling were limited or denied.
We all want to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others and this is what makes for meaningful relationships.
If we are denied that, then we feel socially isolated, even if we are in a crowd.
Traditionally, Christmas is a time in which families and friends come together.
Often, in the midst of our busy lives and globally dispersed relationships, it may be the only time we come together.
And, of course, storytelling is one of the main things that happens when people come together in this way – stories of what has happened since we were last together, stories of past Christmases, those stories that form part of the family folklore.
The wonders of online technology allow us to connect at Christmas with those who cannot be with us in person – in ways that not so long ago we could never have imagined possible.
But we need to use the technology well, as a means for allowing us to share our stories.
If we take care of our storytelling health, then we take care of a lot else besides.
For support and advice about loneliness or social isolation, visit the British Red Cross.