Well-Being Mental Health

Sen. Murphy sees policy role in easing loneliness

“The true cost of American loneliness is both hidden and insidious, and it’s time policymakers started taking this problem seriously.”
Man alone on bench.

Story at a glance

  • An erosion of local communities and the increased role of technology in everyday life have contributed to rising rates of loneliness in the United States, according to Sen. Chris Murphy.

  • But these two factors also mark opportunities for policy intervention, he said.

  • Writing in The Bulwark, Murphy lays out a plan for lawmakers to address the growing problem of American loneliness.

Rates of loneliness increased globally throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, leading researchers to push for continued monitoring of the condition, which has been linked with a heightened risk of premature death and worse mental and physical health.  

In a new article, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) argues policy changes can help make a difference in combatting the problem.

In addition to the social isolation brought on by distancing measures and lockdowns throughout the pandemic, economic and technological trends can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness, Murphy wrote in The Bulwark.

He said research shows both aloneness, which he characterized as having fewer social contacts, and loneliness, which he defined as feelings of isolation, have risen in recent decades, despite technology and the increasing concentration of people in densely populated areas seemingly offering more opportunities for connection.

“The true cost of American loneliness is both hidden and insidious, and it’s time policymakers started taking this problem seriously,” Murphy wrote. 

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Of the myriad factors contributing to the problem, two demand attention from policy makers: the rise of technology and digital communication, and the erosion of local community, Murphy said. 

Notably, solutions already enjoy bipartisan support, he explained. One way he said policy can address the trend is to steer technology companies toward products that breed happiness as opposed to anxiety and loneliness. 

Numerous studies have detailed the negative effects of social media and other virtual communication methods on mental health. For example, social media engagement with friends and family has been linked with worse body image perception compared with engagement with influencers or celebrities. For college students, fully online courses are also associated with worse mental health than a hybrid in-person, online format. 

“Put simply, we have learned that digital communication cannot replace the value of in-person experience,” Murphy said. 

Efforts are currently underway to increase the minimum age of children technology companies can target and better protect children from online addiction and data collection.

In California, lawmakers worked together to pass a bill requiring tech companies to design platforms with children’s well-being in mind. 

Murphy went on to explain how connection typically happens through local institutions like places of worship, sports teams or business organizations. But large trends like globalization have weakened these institutions, Murphy argued. Local businesses have been replaced by “the Walmart/Amazon economy,” he said, while adults are forced to juggle multiple jobs, leaving them no time for extracurriculars. 

Increased loneliness can result in real health consequences and has coincided with rising suicide rates, particularly among teenagers and men living in rural areas, two cohorts Murphy argues have been “disproportionately affected by the changing landscape of American culture and economy.”

He also noted rising loneliness can lead to increased anger and a decaying sense of social civility overall, which he said has led to increased acts of political violence and animosity between political parties. 

Meanwhile, “the newly isolated become supple targets for demagogues who offer up scapegoats to blame for the decay of these traditional sources of meaning,” he said.

To address this challenge, Murphy recommended advancing policies aimed at restoring the health of local communities. He said this can be done by championing economic nationalism, or bringing good-paying industries back to the United States. Americans with a single full-time, well-paying job may have more time to engage with their community and participate in non-work activities, Murphy argued. 

Federal, state, and local governments should also consider providing subsidies to civic groups, local newspapers and other organizations while “reining in the neo-monopolies that put so many local grocery stores, booksellers, and the like out of business. Antitrust policy can make for good anti-loneliness policy,” Murphy said. 

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