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Addressing loneliness “urgently and creatively” through tech

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Hannah Thomson, CEO and founder of The Joy Club, speaks to Health Tech World about a future of healing loneliness, especially later in life, through online communities…

The advent and exponential adoption of social media globally means that – in many ways – the world is more connected than ever before. Yet, loneliness is on the rise. 

Loneliness in any individual at any age is deserving of attention but here I’ll focus on the particular issue of loneliness amongst people in later life – pressing, amongst other reasons, as it presents a particular public health challenge.

Age UK predicts that there are likely to be over two million people in later life in the UK experiencing loneliness by 2025/6 (an approximate 49% increase in ten years).

Already, nearly half of people in later life consider the pet or a TV to be their main companion.

Loneliness “as harmful as 15 cigarettes a day”

The impacts of loneliness are profound – socially, mentally and physically. Research has found that the effects of loneliness are twice as harmful as obesity or the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day

Early work in this area – yet to be peer reviewed – has found that loneliness costs the NHS £12k per person, over 15 years in later life.

Thousands of people in later life are visiting their GP because they are lonely (approximately 10 ten visits, per GP practice, per day) – and only 13% of doctors feel they can actually help. Individuals are suffering and the system is struggling to cope.

We need to address loneliness amongst people in later life, urgently and creatively. How? Social media in its current form is certainly not the answer.

Current social media leaves people feeling more lonely

Research shows that social media leaves us feeling more lonely – particularly for those who were already lonely before using social media.

Social media has been found to exacerbate negative feelings, damaging a sense of wellbeing – particularly via social comparison.

In essence, users compete for attention – with posts and images that are likely to be a selective or aspirational representation of their actual lives – which creates a negative cycle for users consuming that content and feeling that they don’t measure up.

Whilst some platforms such as BeReal seek to tackle this phenomenon, fleeting moments of ‘realness’ are not enough to create an environment where genuine, meaningful, loneliness-busting connections can be made. 

What it takes to create a new kind of social media that fosters genuine connections

Social media may currently be part of the problem, but – when created with purpose, community and connection in mind – I believe that it can absolutely be part of the solution. 

What’s more, it’s not enough that we build loneliness-busting technology for this demographic – we need to be co-creating the solution to loneliness in later life with the people it’s intended for.

Without direct input from retirees, it’s much harder to understand why current social media platforms aren’t working for this demographic and how to create something that has the potential to beat loneliness for good.

Based on my experience to date (and a wealth of feedback from our own members), I believe there are three key areas to consider when building for this demographic:

Retirees must feel seen and heard in an online community

One reason that current social media isn’t working for this demographic is that society at large isn’t working for people in later life – and AI replicates and amplifies societal prejudice. For example, the Twitter algorithm that crops pictures was found to be ageist. The same algorithm was also found to be ableist and racist. 

The bias built-into current social media platforms has been traced to two different sources: homophily in developers, i.e. developers tending to be young men earning above average salaries; and, AI learning from real-world data, i.e. replicating patterns of bias and discrimination already happening in the world.

The stories that our own members have shared with us on their experiences of growing older ranged from macro drivers to micro-aggressions.

On the macro front, to pick a couple of examples, the pandemic and cost of living crisis have led to older people feeling forced to leave the workforce before they’re ready to retire, or remaining in the workforce reluctantly due to concerns about the affordability of retirement. 

On the micro front, quotes gathered directly from those in later life experiencing this phenomenon painted a bleak picture.

One person felt that “people just don’t seem to want to talk to you as you get older – you definitely feel invisible” whilst another described themselves as being perceived by some as “being ‘past your sell-by date’ and therefore of little further use or interest.”

The same person explained that it’s as though “all the previous experiences and knowledge you acquired when you were younger counts for nothing”.  

The discrimination that this demographic is experiencing in the real world is only amplified by AI across current social media platforms – it’s important that we break this cycle and create a safe online space where people in later life feel seen and heard.

This can only be done by ensuring there’s no in-built algorithmic bias and also by empowering users as content creators so that their voices are present and authentic.

Retirees want to be the customer, not the commodity

With current social media platforms, we have got used to being the commodity and not the customer. We use the platforms for free, knowing that advertisers (the real paying customers) are being sold the opportunity to target us with ads. Indeed, about 85% of Twitter’s revenue is from ads and so is about 98% of Facebook’s revenue.

This is important when thinking about those in later life and how they’re engaging with different types of content on social media.

That’s because whilst working with this older demographic, we’ve observed that many of them actually find it difficult to differentiate between what is community-generated content and what is advertising content.

This leads to users clicking on to adverts accidentally and being inadvertently led away from the social media platform itself – making for a confusing and messy user experience.

Instead, for social media to foster connection for this older demographic, an advertising-free model where members pay a subscription fee can make it possible for content to be genuinely useful and meaningful, all whilst they’re reassured they are the customers with the focus on building for them. 

Retirees want to form meaningful connections around shared interests, not compete for attention

Having worked with many retirees on how they engage with and operate within a social media platform, one of the first things we observed was how those in later life tend not to use the ‘like’ button but instead opt for the ‘comment’ functionality, so they could engage more deeply with posts within their community.  

We also found that they were posting about experiences of interests, like a new gardening project or a particularly beautiful view on a walk – then other members were contributing around aligned interests. There were only a handful of selfies across the course of a year.

As it turned out, those in later life typically don’t exhibit any of the ‘social comparison’ or competitive behaviour that has been found to be the reason why social media makes us more lonely.

Instead, they tend to find common ground around shared interests in order to form meaningful connections. 

Creating online communities

Ultimately, we should be focused on creating online communities with the specific needs of retirees – a demographic set to account for 22% of our population in the next decade – at their core.

When we do this, we enable older users to feel both seen and heard, we demonstrate that they are the customer and not a commodity and we create a space where they can form meaningful connections around shared interests.

In short, we stand a chance of making a meaningful dent in the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in later life.

Hannah Thomson, 2022

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