Dr. Jessica Johnson: Loneliness a worldwide health threat

One of the concerning health headlines toward the end of 2023 was the loneliness epidemic that is affecting millions of Americans, causing premature death in many cases. And it’s not just the U.S. that is grappling with so many adults and young people feeling alone and isolated. The World Health Organization declared loneliness a “pressing health threat” last November, and it was one of the top five health issues listed in a global roundup report by the World Economic Forum.

WHO has established a Commission on Social Connection to promote in-person and meaningful relationships with the objective of nations working together on a three-year global agenda. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is a co-chair of the Commission, which has begun addressing the stereotypical misconception that mostly older adults suffer from a lack of companionship and trusted inner circles. WHO cited research that shows one in four older people are “[experiencing] social isolation” compared to “5-15% of adolescents [experiencing] loneliness” but believes that these numbers could possibly be much higher.

The obvious correlation between these age groups is that both feel the distress of lack of interaction, and this severely impacts their mental health and well-being. Older and younger people enduring loneliness battle depression and anxiety, and this places older adults at even more risk for heart disease, dementia, and stroke. WHO also stresses that not having significant social connections “carries an equivalent, or even greater, risk of early death as other better-known risk factors – such as smoking, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, obesity, and air pollution.” In an interview with USA Today last year, Murthy explained that living in ongoing isolation and loneliness has the same detrimental health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

With the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to carry over in social isolation, the digital landscape that many teens and young and older adults navigate on a daily basis presents additional urgent challenges. A recent PBS NewsHour report focused on the increasing number of Americans turning to artificial intelligence for friendships and close relationships.

One of the apps discussed that many people have downloaded is Replika AI, which allows users to create avatars and have basic conversations 24/7 for free. Replika’s website promotes the app as the “AI companion who cares” that is “[a]lways here to listen and talk. Always on your side.” The background features AI-generated “bot buddies” playing musical instruments and doing yoga. Although there are not any current studies that provide an analysis of gender and age cohorts using Replika AI and other similar apps like Paradot according to Associated Press technology writer Haleluya Hadero, I find this trend of turning to computerized friends disturbing because technology cannot replace the interaction we need with one another.

Just as we know that having hundreds of friends and followers on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and X do not provide the genuine fellowship and comfort of in-person relationships, having a bot to talk to definitely won’t give those who are lonely the deep connections they truly need in their lives. The bots are programmed to be reassuring and affable, but one of the ethical concerns that Hadero points out is that within our human friendships we are not always going to agree.

Conflict is a normal part of human relationships, and a true friend will tell you when you are wrong while still offering encouragement as you go through trying and difficult situations. One of the most quoted scriptures regarding solid and reliable friendships is Proverbs 27:17. I like the Amplified Bible translation which says, “As iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens [and influences] another [through discussion].” Throughout my life I can reflect on many heartfelt, and when needed, critical discussions that I have had with close friends who have poured into me, along with my pastor and my mother. Many times, what I needed most was constructive criticism when I was clinging to a stubborn and narrow-minded viewpoint.

I know that many people are not fortunate to have a close bond with peers or even family members, and this is why Murthy advocates “strengthening [our] social fabric through organizations such as our healthcare systems and schools. I would add that churches have an important role as well since many people who feel isolated are looking for a deeper spiritual relationship with God as they struggle with existential questions. It is painfully obvious that the world is getting lonelier, so it is imperative that we do more to foster stronger connections in our communities.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.