Sesno: I’d like to go . . . to an email that came in even before the program began today, and this is a very interesting question that puts it in another context — so let me read, this is the email, this is from Amy in Vermont, and she writes the following: “I wonder how much of loneliness is caused by our lack of real community in this country. An older woman said to me that it was very difficult. While she was raising her kids all the mothers were home and spent time together daily. Now, she said, no one is home, and it is no fun any more. It seems to me,” Amy continues, “that this is true, that most people are off at work all day every day, then when they come home they have no interest in anything other than seeing their own family or watching television.” And she says this: “I think the way our society is set up, with everyone off at jobs forty-plus hours per week, with America’s emphasis on the individual, our innately selfish natures take over and we simply don’t want to deal with other people.” What do you think?
Cacioppo: I think Amy’s — [pause] — quite prescient. The, uh, in the book we talk about the effects of these societal structures and changes in our society. Uh, in . . . in 1984 there was a social science survey that asked the question, “How many confidants do you have?” . . . and the most frequent response to that question was three. Uh, that question was repeated in 2004, and the most frequent response in two thousand and four was zero.
Sesno: What happened?
Cacioppo: I think Amy described, partly, what’s happened. We have an aging population — but we also have divorce rates being higher, we have work demands being greater, we have, um, both, uh, parents working — so children don’t have the same time, parents don’t have the same time, that promised leisure, hours that we were going to gain over the last several decades never was realized. If we just look at the number of people living alone, it’s increased thirty percent in the last several decades.
Sesno: And there’s something else too, and that’s technology, it strikes me — we have a technology that has tended to pull us apart. And, you know, my kids can sit in their rooms on their cell phones, uh, they don’t have televisions in their rooms — rather purposefully I might add — but it doesn’t matter because if they’ve got a computer in their rooms — and I even fought that — they can watch, download, communicate, text. It, we, we’ve disengaged from one another, it seems, driven by some of this technology.
Cacioppo: We’ve changed our family interactions as well. When I was a child, we had dinners together as a family; now we individually go out and catch a quick meal at the fast food stores. Technology, though — its relationship to loneliness and isolation is complex. The initial studies, where people were randomly assigned to have technology or not, uh, showed that, contrary to what the authors thought they were going to find, having access to the Internet increased loneliness. . . . But subsequent research has clarified that relationship, and it’s a little more nuanced than that. Uh, if the technology is used instead of face-to-face relationships, then loneliness, depressed mood increase. If technology is instead used as a way to connect — to reinforce, supplement, and lead to face-to-face relationships that are high-quality, then technology actually is associated with reductions.
Sesno: So you could make the case that what we see with so many people now, through their social networking, their facebooks, their youtubes, their, uh, even texting with one another, however glancing those are, that that’s actually creating a form of human connectivity.
Cacioppo: It is. But what people sometimes miss is that it’s not the number of such contacts. . . . Um, having a handful, one or two, good friends is all it takes to feel intimately connected.
Sesno: You’re talking about the quality, then, of the relationship.
Cacioppo: Right. It’s the quality, not the quantity. Study after study has shown it’s the quality of those connections. And we can’t maintain high-quality, meaningful relationships with many many individuals.