Last September, on a vacation trip to the Philippines, I had two incredible experiences, both of them taking place in the span of a single week. The first was meeting an online friend I had been talking to for several months. We met up at a mall and spent our time talking about our hobbies and lives. The second was going to a local Seventh-day Adventist church. Everyone there was hospitable and welcoming and we got to know each other over lunch. It was a lively experience that really made me feel the love of Jesus through the community. Both of these events involved something I always struggled with: interacting with new people and taking steps to relate to them. This may seem trivial—after all, social interaction is something everyone has to partake in at some point—but this is a problem that many of us face today.
Although modern society projects an image of increased connection, studies reveal the opposite: a rise of antisocial behaviour and loneliness, along with heightened anxiety, to the point that there seems to be a “loneliness epidemic”.
A global survey by Statista taken in 2021 found that roughly 33 per cent of adults worldwide suffered loneliness. Although the Covid-19 pandemic had indeed increased loneliness and isolation around the world, a downward trend in social connectivity has existed for some time.1 For instance, the number of friends the average Australian has today is half as many as they had in the 1980s. In the UK, disconnection has grown so severe that a Minister for Loneliness was first appointed in 2018.2
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this phenomenon of “social disconnection” started, it has grown into an increasingly existential issue that modern society has to deal with.
The most immediate impact brought about by social disconnection is its negative mental and physical effect on the human body. “The relation which exists between the mind and the body is very intimate,” writes author and early Seventh-day Adventist leader Ellen White. “When one is affected, the other sympathises. The condition of the mind affects the health of the physical system.”3
These words have since been proven by science. Physical health is more often than not affected by our mental state. Loneliness has been scientifically proven to be worse for the body than smoking, high blood pressure or obesity. It also causes increased anxiety, depression and antisocial behaviour. On the other hand, stronger social connection can actually lengthen your lifespan and strengthen your immune system.
Social disconnection, as the word suggests, disconnects us from social interaction. Humans are wired to connect to others and it is through these connections that societies are built. In the workforce, interpersonal connections are a vital part of the job-seeking process, whether working from home or in person, and are needed to increase the success rate of securing a financially stable job. Meanwhile, communities (such as churches, support organisations and local groups) intrinsically require connecting with people on a regular basis to fulfil their intended purpose.
Even the most basic relationships such as friendship, family and romance require this skill and, in fact, could be said to be where we need it the most, as they require the willingness to be vulnerable and to proactively connect on a regular basis. Breaking these bonds due to neglect or unintentional disconnect is a tragic thought because of how avoidable such situations are.
Thankfully, there are practical steps we can take to avoid social disconnection. A few of them include:
Putting down your phone. This might seem obvious, yet it is far easier said than done. Today’s increasingly interconnected world has made the phone a vital toolkit; emails from work, connections with family, making new acquaintances online, all of these things are just a finger flick away thanks to the phone. However, we have the tendency to become far too attached to these devices. How many hours a day have we spent scrolling through our feed? Spending less time on a gadget is a good way to improve your mental health and spend more time on more productive recreation.
Working in-person. Online work has many benefits, such as more flexible schedules and removing transportation costs. However, some people report feeling disconnected from their colleagues while working from home, and as a result feel “lonely” while working. Try working at least one or two days in the office (or wherever you work) where you can come into face-to-face contact with your coworkers. This will allow you to make more meaningful small talk with others during break times and practise interpersonal social skills needed in everyday life. As well as this, human interaction is great for building a better sense of unity during team projects.
Join smaller communities. This might seem contradictory to what has been said so far but it is okay to be part of online communities. However, instead of trying to join the barrage of comments of internet streamers or influencers, try forming a tighter-knit community of people with similar beliefs or interests. Online group chats, hobby circles or parenting support groups are good examples of smaller online communities you could join.
Get to know your local community. The rise of digital entertainment, online shopping and other forms of luxury through the screen has killed a lot of enthusiasm for going to community gathering spots such as cafés, parks, and community centres. Proactively taking steps to connect with the community you live with is a good way to get much-needed social interaction. Going to farmers’ markets is a good way to connect with people and a way to get locally-grown products, while attending marathons or other events that involve physical activity can help you meet other like-minded people while improving your physical health. Additionally, getting involved in the community is a good way to make the world a better place.
Find a church. Churches are usually holding some kind of event on a given weekend and are wonderful opportunities to get to know other people. After returning from my trip to the Philippines, I participated in a fundraiser held by a church I attend. Working together behind the fundraising booth and getting to talk to new people was ultimately a fulfilling experience that benefitted not only those who attended but also me, giving credence to the saying that “the generous soul will be made rich” (Proverbs 11:25, NKJV).
Meet online friends. In smaller communities, online friendships could eventually reach a stage where people are comfortable with meeting up in real life; many friendships have been formed this way. However, this step must be taken with extreme caution, especially if you plan to meet up with each other one-on-one. Forming friendships in-person requires a degree of vulnerability and if you’re not careful, you could get taken advantage of in rather unpleasant ways. I highly recommend you know what your online friend physically looks like before meeting them (perhaps ask them to video chat in order to confirm their face) and on the day of the meeting itself, bring a friend or relative along with you for safety purposes.
“It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). These simple words reveal the foreknowledge of the Creator and have become prophetic in describing today’s world.
The increasing loneliness and disconnection spreading throughout the world is something that needs to be addressed, starting with each and every one of us. No matter how daunting it may be to us, remember that you’ll never be alone whenever you connect with others; others will walk and have walked a similar path to yours in the road to social connection.
Go out there and start connecting with people. It won’t just benefit others—it will benefit you, too.
Zach Tan is a writer based in Melton, Victoria. He has an eccentric sense of humour and is constantly on the lookout for new things to write about.
3. Ellen Gould White, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, Good Health Publishing Co, 1890.