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Becoming Less Lonesome: How Tech Can Attack the Scourge of Loneliness
Chronic loneliness has become a public health crisis that has reached epidemic levels across demographics. In fact, loneliness has intensified over the years with three in five Americans (61%) reporting today that they are lonely, compared to more than half (54%) in 2018. Additionally, the global impact and implications of mandated quarantines and social distancing guidelines intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 may have unintentionally exacerbated loneliness, likely making these statistics even more alarming.
Chronic loneliness can weaken the immune system and place an individual at greater risk for more serious medical and emotional disorders, including diabetes and depression. “There is a growing body of data and science that’s telling us that loneliness is more prevalent than we thought and it’s also growing over the last several decades,” says Dr. Vivek Murthy, Former US Surgeon General and author of the book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. “Loneliness places the body in a chronic stress state and increases inflammation levels, our risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.”
Further, loneliness leads to more healthcare utilization and decreases the likelihood of positive health outcomes after patients have been discharged from the hospital. As loneliness continues to permeate in society, so do the accompanying health risks mentioned above impair the immune system—which can spur new cases of COVID-19.
How Technology Can Combat Loneliness
To determine how we can curb loneliness, we first must look at what is causing this health crisis. A lack of social support and infrequent, meaningful social exchanges, including face-to-face interactions, are often cited as leading causes. In addition to less engagement in physical activity, heavy social media use has also been identified as a cause of loneliness, as most popular platforms do not foster true connections but instead invite individuals to “like” or briefly comment on perfectly crafted images or narratives.
According to a recent study commissioned global cybersecurity company Kaspersky, “New research has found that adults across the UK have been suffering from loneliness long before the lockdown measures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic came into force. Over half of Brits (53%) – who have felt lonely at times during the COVID-19 crisis, have been feeling lonelier than they did beforehand.” Additionally, the report states that “Nearly three quarters (71%) of adults in the UK agree technology is helping them feel connected to friends and family who live far away, increasing to 77% of millennials.”
This is evidenced by the half a million people who downloaded the chatbot-enabled app, Replika: My AI Friend during the height of COVID-19 – the largest monthly gain in the parent company’s three-year history. For people feeling the effects of social isolation, Replika provided the opportunity to converse freely, with a digital interlocutor, via text message. As individuals continue to engage with the bot through text, the technology learns more about the person, mimics their tone and even provides appropriate responses. For a fee of $8 a month, users can participate in a “live” conversation with the bot. Users described feeling less lonely and felt that they had a “friend”.
Since research has associated loneliness with a lack of engagement in physical activities, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) provide a great opportunity due to it immersive nature. For example, individuals can transform their times of isolation into virtually visiting exotic locations or participating in activities like horseback riding, mountain climbing, white-water rafting or hand gliding all without leaving their home. This technology provides users with a feeling of fulfillment and adventure, especially if they cannot engage in these real-world activities or travel to these destinations in-person.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud-based solutions can additionally help limit social isolation and loneliness. Specifically, AI-driven “robots” or digital companion tabletop assistants can serve as companions to the elderly with features like:
- Enabling human-like interactions, such as a simple “good morning” or “good night”
- Offering lifestyle tips and reminders that are programmed based on the user’s routine, such as: “Don’t forget about your doctor’s appointment at 2 PM today” or “It’s Bob’s birthday today – remember to call him”
- Facilitating interactions with loved ones. For example, many AI tools offer companion apps that family members can download to communicate with their elderly relatives. This functionality provides the ability for family members to send voice-activated text messages, sync with their loved one’s calendar appointments and receive notifications saying “Mary has not been around today—try checking on her” if the elderly relative appears not to be following their typical routine.
The Time for Acknowledgement Is Now
Some members of the medical community overlook loneliness as it cannot be diagnosed through traditional healthcare exams, like a blood test, brain scan or X-ray, and it is often confused with depression, which often requires pharmacological intervention. When it is acknowledged as a health issue, providers often feel ill-equipped to manage it because loneliness requires a specific screening to diagnose it, as well as several solutions to manage and track patient outcomes. The bottom line is that due to its complexity, loneliness requires a multifaceted, wholistic approach among the healthcare and life sciences industry for it to be adequately addressed. To begin, it’s critical to develop a comprehensive strategy and methodology with on-demand solutions that will address the new and exacerbated incidences of loneliness—to ensure positive health outcomes for individuals.