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Lonely? Tech firms hope you'll use an app for that

Brittany Meiling, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

The post-Internet era has ushered in generations of socially awkward adults who've long leaned on technology for their social kicks. But as millennials age out of college, many adults have found themselves...well, painfully lonely.

And tech companies have taken note.

Technology titans and fledgling startups alike -- including three in San Diego -- are all stepping up, each with different ideas about how to get people talking in real life again. But can apps and new tech platforms really help our social angst?

Tech companies have tried in the past, and most have failed to earn our attention. Yet the opportunity to address our collective loneliness persists -- and grows year after year.

Technology may have started the problem. Now they're trying to fix it

Meeting new friends -- and then maintaining those friendships as a busy adult -- is not a problem unique to younger generations, says Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher at McGill University. It's something most adults experience after college.

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"Once we're no longer in school, we aren't surrounded by a group of people who are going through similar life experiences, or perhaps have similar interests or schedules," Kirmayer said. "As adults, we become busy with work, romance, children, careers, and aging parents. Even if we do have time to meet new people, where can we look?"

Although not a new problem, there's a good chance the modern lifestyle is contributing to an uptick in social isolation. Social media allows users to keep in touch with friends and family without ever picking up the phone or inviting anyone to dinner. E-commerce takes the small talk out of shopping. Convenience apps like Uber, PostMates, and Instcart allow city dwellers to order groceries, a cab, and dinner without looking anyone in the eye.

Research on loneliness and isolation has shown many adults struggle with forming and maintaining meaningful friendships. A new study conducted by UC San Diego researchers, published last month, found that 3 out of 4 Americans experience "moderate to high levels of loneliness." Older studies found loneliness rates of 17 percent to 57 percent and that younger generations are among the loneliest of all.

Harvard psychology professor Matthew Lieberman says our need to connect with other humans is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter.

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