The Internet may be the cause of AND the remedy to loneliness in the UK

The Internet may be the cause of loneliness or a remedy for it, but real relationships are what matter, whether on or off line.

Real relationships are what matter, whether on or off line, says Tracey Robbins.

There are many conflicting claims about whether the Internet and social media are helping or hindering efforts to reduce loneliness in the UK.

The Policy Exchange has argued recently that loneliness among older people could be tackled by training more people to use the Internet, while another study has shown that Facebook eases loneliness for teenagers.

However, there is also research that suggests that Internet use can affect teenagers’ ability to have meaningful relationships with their parents and friends. Other studies suggest a link between Internet use and addiction, loneliness and depression.

It’s probably fair to say that the Internet and social media are part of the cause of loneliness but also part of the solution. For me the main thing is that ‘people need people’ and people need connections, peer support, a confidante, friends. And often it is a complex myriad of relationships on and off line that form these connections.

The way generations perceive the Internet and social media has changed significantly, highlighted by one of my favourite quotes from a 30-something woman in York: “What we need [to reduce loneliness] is something like social networking but physically.”

Loneliness is subjective. It’s not necessarily about being alone; it is a mismatch between the relationships you have and the relationships you want.

Most of us want real relationships, whether on or off line. My fear is this search for the ‘one size fits all approach’ to us as complex human beings. Loneliness is very personal and what makes one person's loneliness may not make another person feel lonely.

I agree with a call for Internet training for all – regardless of age.

I would imagine, however, that the training itself would be as powerful as the ability to use the Internet:

  • having a reason to get up and go out; 
  • increased self confidence in learning a new skill; 
  • being a part of a supporting group all learning a new skill together;
  • getting to know people where you live;
  • creating a common experience that can be the basis of new friendships off line and on line. 

And, of course, all could be a gateway to more learning or new activities.

We must remember that anyone at any age can be lonely, but anyone at any age can reduce loneliness, their own or another’s.

JRF has a free resource pack for anyone wanting to explore and reduce loneliness.