The “Age Of Loneliness”: Last Night’s ‘Q&A’ Was All About Social Media And Mental Health

"We're expected to navigate all this alone, and that I think is at the core of a lot of or existential loneliness."

Even before COVID-19 physically cut us off from one another, young Australians were feeling isolated.

Last year a government survey found 30 percent of millenials always or often feel lonely, in comparison to just 15 percent of Baby Boomers. Loneliness is expected to be the 21st century’s next public health epidemic — once we finish dealing with our current one, I guess.

On last night’s Q&A panellists talked about this “age of loneliness”, with questions about social media, mental health and even the difference between enjoying solitude and being alone.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay said while the technology revolution has kept us more connected than ever, we didn’t anticipate that it would also make it easier than ever to stay away from each other.

“I think we shouldn’t be at all surprised that ‘connected but lonely’ is a phenomenon,” he said.

“We humans, like many other species on the planet, are essentially social beings, we’re herd animals, we absolutely need each other. We’re hopeless in isolation, we congregate, we form families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, choirs, football teams et cetera, that’s the kind of people we are.

“All of those kinds of connections that are typical of herd animals involve being in the same place at the same time, they involve face-to-face contact, eye contact, sometimes touch … the information technology revolution, which of course has been a bit of a lifesaver for many people through the pandemic, the kind of connection it offers is of a completely different time which is not consistent with the sort of connection that members of a social species need.”

Is Cancel Culture Preventing Us From Making Real Connections?

Dr Michelle Lim — who chairs the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness scientific advisory committee — said it wasn’t about the technology, it was about how the technology was used.

She was responding to a question from another viewer, Malcolm Pryor, who asked whether political correctness and cancel culture prevented us from having real conversations and making real connections.

“I think one of the things about social media is it’s easier to hide behind that screen, so it may come across as a little bit more aggressive or a little bit more disconnected in some way but … it’s not social media per se, it’s about how you use it that’s more important,” Dr Lim said.

“If you’re using it to be combative or using it to create conflict or using it to compare yourself with other people, those are unhelpful intentions of social media. But if you’re using it to actually reconnect with people that you care about, your friends from the other side of the world, these things can also reduce loneliness.”

Fellow panellist and self-help author Sarah Wilson said that while people were able to deal with the limitations of technology, they were struggling with the feeling of being morally alone.

“A lot of philosophers throughout history … (and) also psychologists today talk about the far more dangerous and disconcerting loneliness which is moral aloneness, or moral loneliness. I think this is actually what we’re straddling at the moment,” she said.

“We’re in a world where COVID revealed a lot of this for us, revealed all of the redundancies in our culture that the neoliberal system has set us up for. We also had the bushfires, we also had the Black Lives Matter riots and protests. All of this has been happening at a time as democracy has gone dramatically downhill.

“We’ve got political fragmentation … we don’t get straight answers from politicians and we are feeling dreadfully, morally alone where the moral umpires that used to guide us in life … they’ve all fallen apart.

“We’re expected to navigate all this alone, and that I think is at the core of a lot of or existential loneliness.”

Disabled People Treated As “Collateral Damage”

Rosemary Kayess from the Disability Innovation Institute UNSW also spoke about how people with disabilities were treated like “collateral damage” in the pandemic, when hospitals around the world began prioritising care.

“They were just singling out diagnostic groups, not based on any clinical analysis … that wouldn’t receive critical care,” she said.

“It was such a visceral reaction that I had. It was so in my face that I was dispensable. My life wasn’t valued, and my life was dispensable.

“Now I had this illusion that I was doing a pretty good job with my life, working and I own my home, and I love my family, and I‘ve got friends and thought I was contributing, but when it came down to it, I was dispensable.”

You can check out the full episode of Q&A here.