Social media was created to connect people, but for many, it has been felt to have the opposite effect. The growth of technology is in parallel with an increased sense of disconnection as our always-on lives speed up. In 2018, usage averaged 136 minutes a day, with the Royal Society for Public Health describing it as more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes.
But looking back, the negative impact of heavy periods of Facebook scrolling is possibly symptomatic of the unnecessary use of technology – when physical company was unfettered. Today the situation is reversed.
Loneliness is a thoroughly human experience. Not only does it affect young adults, but it is also a hidden killer amongst the elderly. In these times where social distancing is the new norm and many vulnerable people remain behind closed doors, loneliness is larger than life. But for many, technology has come to the rescue – coming into its own, it is now a real human need.
Welcome to the flipside, where technology is helping communities achieve a sense of solidarity in current harsh realities. As Patrick Williams explored in our recent post, we are starting to use our means of connection for the benefit of communities. Local areas have Whatsapp groups to help the lonely and vulnerable. Ramadan ceremonies were live-streamed on Zoom. Tablets are being left at care-homes so the elderly can keep in touch with loved ones. Facebook Portal brought Fathers Day hope for the millions unable to physically connect.
Personally, I have never kept in-touch with my family and loved ones as often as I do now; even on a community-level, the local resident’s group has set up a group for helping our vulnerable neighbours. This is technology for good, putting its best foot forwards.
But not everyone finds it easy. Sadly, loneliness will always be a part of our collective experience and social distancing has already taken its toll; in May, the Royal College of Physicians noted that there has been an increase in patients with no prior experience of mental illness developing serious psychological problems because of lockdown. As a result, four in ten psychiatrists report an increase in people needing urgent and emergency mental healthcare. With the end of the furlough scheme fast approaching and the return to offices looming on the horizon, new concerns are bound to be increasing.
But technology is providing the tools to help. The mental health charity Samaritans has launched a new app to help people struggling in lockdown. Meanwhile, mental health app Wysa is exploding following a huge spike in anxiety during the Covid-19 crisis – it’s received 2 million downloads. The app uses AI to listen and recommend evidence-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to users. Our toolkits for coping with the upheaval are growing as technological innovation accelerates.
The death of wartime hero, Dame Vera Lynn, has hit many this week and has prompted the public to again compare the current lockdown effort to the national spirit of the Blitz. As the world reacts to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, a war-time kinship has been evoked – and digital technology has stepped up to truly provide a greater sense of community and support.
As always, it is when you truly need a technology that you appreciate it as more than a luxury. Digital platforms and ongoing innovations are bridging our world together and helping to heal our fragilities. While we are not living through the carnage of war, that same Blitz spirit is in the air – and it’s being amplified online.