THE BLOG
09/11/2016 07:25 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2017

The New Loneliness

by Mehmet Oz, MD & Michael Crupain, MD, MPH

Today we are more connected than ever. Between social media, text messaging, and email, it feels like we are in almost constant communication with our "friends." Speaking of friends, we've never had more and we can effortlessly keep up with all of their wonderful lives with the mere flick of a thumb. With all of this connectivity, loneliness should be a thing of the past, right?

This summer, with the help of expert political pollster Mike Berland (CEO of Berland Strategy & Analytics) we conducted a survey of women from all around the country to find out the state of women's health in America. The results surprised us: despite living in a hyper-connected world, women are actually more isolated than ever and subject to a new type of loneliness. Our nationally representative sample revealed that 60% of women have feelings of isolation or loneliness and 20% experience this state most or all of the time. This epidemic is extremely concerning, because it turns out that loneliness is more than just a feeling, it is actually a threat to your health.

So while we are more connected then ever via our computers and mobile devices, how is it we may actually be drifting further apart? It's because we've replaced actual contact with virtual contact and it's leaving us dissatisfied.

First, while social media can be a powerful tool for creating connections, it can also create an illusion of connectedness. There is more to friendship than just collecting lists of people and likes. True social connectedness involves having deep relationships where we make ourselves vulnerable to our friends who in return make themselves vulnerable to us. Friendship is a two-way street where both need to be honest with each other and give feedback, not just interact superficially and put on a façade. Yet according to our survey, women are 50% more likely to spend time reading about what their friends are doing rather than actually talking to them. And when women are following their friends on social media, they are 3 times more likely to simply read and like their updates rather than leave comments. This may be why some studies suggest that friendship on social media can actually make people feel worse.

According to some experts, relationships work best when people communicate in person. That's because social cues are an important part of connecting. Body language, eye contact, and tone of voice all provide information that helps us relate to one another. Unfortunately, often times, these are lost in the world of texting and social media where we can show people only what we want them to see and where context is almost entirely missing. Even over-the-phone or via video chat, studies have shown we may lose important body language cues. Time is our most valuable commodity in life, and the more of it we spend on our online activities, the less we have for each other.

Despite how important real connections are for our overall health, according to our survey, 75% of women spend one hour or less talking to their friends in person or on the phone, but 86% spend an hour or more following their "friends" on social media. This may feel more efficient, but even so, we were surprised to see that women put a low value on "girl time." In fact, in our survey they rated its importance as only 6.3 out of 10 on average. In addition, the majority of women (63%) say they feel more depressed than they admit to the people in their lives. Even though we see the evidence that we are drifting apart, our survey found that 78% of women say that their use of social media has not kept them from connecting with people in real life. This sense of false reassurance we get from our supposed connectedness is why we are calling this the "New Loneliness."

Loneliness and social isolation can play a major role in making us sick and even increase the risk of the #1 killer of Americans, heart disease. An analysis of 18 studies found that poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increased risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Loneliness is also associated with high stress and blood pressure. Social isolation has even been shown to affect people's DNA, causing gene expression in immune cells associated with increased inflammation.

Exactly how loneliness causes these negative health effects is not entirely clear, but there are a number of theories, including that people with stronger social networks may have someone (or multiple people) looking out for their health or pressuring them to engage in more healthful behaviors. Also, people with more connections may simply know more about healthy practices because they are exposed to more through their connections.

Of course, social media is not the only reason for our growing loneliness in this day and age, and it can be a powerful tool to help strengthen connections in a world where it feels like we are often being driven further apart because of a broadening suburban sprawl, longer work hours, more commuting, and ease of global travel.

So don't worry. You don't have to give up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and texting to solve the "New Loneliness" problem. Instead, we can use these tools to enhance our social connectedness. First, you can take a few baby steps: stop liking your friend's posts, and comment on them instead. This makes your friend feel better and enhances your bond. Instead of texting so much, try a phone call. But even better than those, use your devices to find time to meet up face-to-face. Research suggests that people who have regular face-to-face interactions, but not regular phone calls or emails, were less likely to be depressed.

So use your smartphone to enhance your in-person relationships rather than replace them. Organize an outing with your friends to go have coffee or dinner on a regular basis. Don't keep your phone on the table when you do, though; a recent small study found that the quality of conversations was reduced when a device is visible. The Internet can be a great tool to make new friends as well. You can use the web to find groups of people that share your hobbies or other interests and arrange meet ups (in fact, one of my producers recently used Meetup.com to find a group of new moms in her area to connect with).

The research tells us that loneliness is contagious, but true connectedness can be too, and it just might save your life.