The New Zealanders who feel most alone

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital “Premium” edition every Thursday…

Research suggests we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Kyle MacDonald discusses what can we do to help.

When a young person dies in their hostel room, and their body lies undiscovered for several weeks, it’s natural to want to lay the blame at someone’s feet. When it becomes clear that last year another young person was left dead in student accommodation for three days, it’s natural that we call for the Government to “do something”.

But will demanding universities take better care of young people in their charge help?

More to the point, how did we get to a stage where we feel we have to force institutions to care via regulation?

Research suggests we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. While the stereotype is that the elderly are most prone to loneliness, recent New Zealand research suggests it is actually those aged 15 to 24 who feel most lonely.

And no, it’s not Facebook’s fault. The consensus of the research on the impact of social media is that for people already isolated, it makes them feel worse. For those who are well connected, social media makes them feel good.

Social media magnifies what we already feel.

But it is true that technology more generally has made us more isolated. If you’re a student you can stay in your room and watch lectures remotely. We can all order food, communicate and do our shopping, all without leaving our house.

We’re also all so busy just trying to keep up with the cost of living, that engaging face to face with people via clubs, organisations or regular commitments is harder – because we have less time and energy for it.

But perhaps we shouldn’t focus on what causes people to isolate. To do so is to blame the victim.

We should talk about how we allow people go missing for eight weeks before they’re missed. That’s on all of us. Communities have become so fractured, it can be hard to know if anyone is missing. Nonetheless, we need to change it.

Especially when isolation and disconnection are such strong indicators – and causes of – mental illness and suicide.

Technology makes us more productive, and can make so much of life feel easier. But people need people. Face to face – kanohi ki te kanohi – contact and connection is a deep and unavoidable human need.

Some loneliness research suggests that spending a lot of time alone, regardless of whether one feels subjectively lonely, can be as bad for your long term health as smoking.

We can all make a difference. Start where you are. Turn off the devices, put down the phones, and talk with your family, with your children, with your partner.

Have dinner together. Ban phones at the dinner table. Have lunch with a colleague, not at your desk.

Talk to the checkout operator, leave your house to buy dinner. Connect with people in your local community. Talk to your neighbours.

Because making yourself miss-able won’t just make you feel better, you might also save someone’s life, without ever knowing you did.

(Click here to read the article on the NZ Herald…)

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