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Loneliness & Isolation: Paradoxes of Today’s Easy Communication

Loneliness, Isolation: Paradoxes of Communication

More technological convenience; less personal contact. More computers, less human communication. Is young people’s health in danger by social isolation?

Literature has long recognised the problem. John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men, is about the pervasiveness of loneliness and isolation: “a guy gets lonely an’ he gets sick”. In 1959 Alan Sillitoe published The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, about a young man who takes up running to escape dismal home life and bleak prospects. It was made into a movie in 1962.

All Ages Can be Isolated and Lonely

Neither is it confined to young or old. ‘Julianne’ is one of many lonely hearts mid-lifers who write of their isolation on the internet. She is 41, and has always suffered low self-esteem and confidence, has no partner, no children and is in a cycle of misery that exacerbates her social problems. She teaches, but knows few people, as colleagues socialise with their own families. Her parents are elderly; she is lonely.

She has contemplated suicide, seeing no way out of her situation. In the past, as a child, she felt she was unpopular, and as an adult was prescribed various antidepressants. When she seeks help, she is advised to join classes, a gym, travel more; occasionally she goes on drinking binges. More technology is not her answer, but what is?

In a world where technology grows exponentially, Shift happens estimates technical information doubles every 72 hours and by 2049 a £500 computer will exceed computational capabilities of the human race, where there is more reliance on data, cameras and the knowledge-based economy, less freedom of movement and spirit of adventure, scientists have suggested that loneliness and isolation are some of the biggest problems society is storing up for itself in the near future.

Much in the Window, Nothing in the Room

In August 2006, the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine published a study, reported in Medical News which indicated that childhood social isolation and loneliness increased risk of poor physical and psychological health later in life. Over a thousand children and young adults were studied through socioeconomic factors, weight and intelligence up to age 26, at which point those without ever having had a partner and with nobody to provide emotional support, were rated socially-isolated adults.

It concluded that the longer an individual youngster was socially-isolated from family and friends to a meaningful length of time, the worse their adult health. This at a time when medicine, food, information offer the safest, healthiest lifestyles the world has enjoyed. Man has got to the moon and back, but, as people realise, in some cases he has trouble crossing the road to talk to neighbours.

In April 2010, the New York Post reported the death of a homeless New Yorker who had gone to help a woman being attacked, after almost 25 people walked past him lying in a pool of blood without doing anything to help, all recorded on CCTV.

Are Computers Entirely to Blame?

The UK Coalition Government is, in the words of several ministers, trying to insert ‘common-sense and balance’ into laws and regulations, from surveillance to data protection and the safeguarding of vulnerable people. However, no government can uninvent computers, data, organisational and planning functions.

No new law is planned to compel people to appear physically in shops, banks, insurance agents and holiday outlets when they have embraced doing it at home with a few mouse clicks. No regulation is tabled to stop people listening to music on electronic gadgets in a cocoon of personal isolation as they go about their lives.

In Britain, for a number of years, a contentious political issue has been closures of local, often small, post offices. Pensions are paid automatically into the bank accounts of elderly people, and it reduces the chances of them being mugged for their cash on their way home. The consequence has been loss of business in shops and post offices, no social intercourse en route and increasing isolation in both rural and urban areas.

While many older people embrace new technology, are happy to use pin numbers, remote banking, internet ordering, computerised homes, where beds are raised for them, alarms are automatic, security is high, and their fridges and gas/water taps are regularly checked to ensure they are not ill. On the other hand, other older people who have no computer access are excluded from a microchip-driven world.

Young people hiding in bedrooms, ostensibly doing homework, is hardly new. What is different nowadays, is that they can open doors into virtual reality worlds of social networking, games, entertainment and lifestyles that are more real, more personal and less condemning than the real one. As secondary/tertiary education embraces distance learning, social isolation may intensify.

First published on Suite 101, 2010.

Photo: Rick Harris


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