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The Loneliness Epidemic and the Power of Connection

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This piece was originally published on Ad Age.

This month the Ad Council released a report called Loneliness, Isolation and Human Touch: A Global Perspective on COVID-19. With all that’s going on in the world right now, you might wonder why we chose to focus on loneliness, and what that has to do with the industry. The answer: Past research has shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community will be happier, have fewer health problems, have better cognitive function, have less depression and live longer—while a lack of deeper relationships may manifest in mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, chronic stress, insomnia and even cognitive decline later in life.

This means that at a key moment in the history of our country, when millions of us are isolating ourselves to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of how lonely we feel—and how we feel connected with each other—is a critical one to understand. Here are the three takeaways for those in the industry who want to use the power of communication to foster authentic connections at scale during this unprecedented time.

1. COVID-19 has not led to an increase in loneliness.

It would be easy to assume that the isolation so many of us have experienced since March would lead to an increase in loneliness on a global scale. Our research shows this isn’t the case. So what’s going on?

For one thing, it’s important to distinguish between isolation and loneliness. Isolation is a contributing factor to loneliness, but it’s just one factor. Those who report feeling lonely are more likely to be single, introverted, experience less physical contact, lack strong social contact and have a higher rate of mental health conditions. Our research confirms a slight increase in feelings of isolation since the beginning of COVID-19, but no increase in reported feelings of loneliness.

2. The pandemic has led to an increase in those who experience contributing factors to loneliness.

In our global sample, 36% say they regularly experience at least one of the contributing factors of loneliness, and that number increased to 44% during COVID-19. In addition, almost half of those who say they are lonely developed this feeling within the last two years. In other words, there is now an opportunity to reach millions who are at risk of increased or regular loneliness before it happens, which could have a significant impact on their physical and mental health down the line.

3. Technology can help people maintain the substantive relationships that are critical to combating loneliness.

Our research concludes that although many of us deeply miss the physical contact and social activities that used to make up our lives—hugging a friend outside a coffee shop, shaking hands with a colleague at happy hour—these moments don’t seem to combat loneliness, at least not on their own. And group activities, surprisingly, were not shown to diminish feelings of loneliness—it was substantive one-on-one interactions that were critical. In other words, this study reaffirms that authentic connection is all about quality over quantity.

So what can we do? Here’s where you come in. In order to maintain and support strong relationships, 73% of respondents typically connect via technology, such as texting or engaging with each other on social media. Seventy-three percent! In this moment, industry leaders must ask themselves what they can do to foster communities where those deeper relationships can be maintained and supported.

When speaking to people who are at risk of becoming lonely, messaging should emphasize why and how solid relationships can help mitigate loneliness and the steps people can take to deepen their relationships.

But it’s not just about creating work that directly addresses loneliness. At the Ad Council, we are using these findings as a lens to re-examine nearly all of our campaigns to ensure they will resonate with people in this moment.

And there are other solutions beyond messaging efforts. Maybe your company is in a unique position to make technology more accessible to underprivileged communities, or maybe you have an innovative idea for virtual safe spaces. This effort will look different for each of us, but the goal is the same: What are we doing, every day, to bring people together?


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