Spotlight on Social Connection

2020 trends and opportunities for 2021

Kasley Killam
Dec 10, 2020 · 8 min read

Building H puts out a regular newsletter that shares new research, recent developments, glimpses of the future, and diverse perspectives related to the intersection of health, everyday life, and innovation. Inspired by a reader’s suggestion, we’re branching out from our usual stories to provide a synthesis of a single domain: social connection. We teamed up with Kasley Killam, founder of Social Health Labs, to produce this synthesis. We hope you find it valuable and please let us know what you think. We’re also interested in nominations for other topics — along with ideas on partners to engage in producing them.

While diet, exercise, and sleep get more attention, social connection can influence your risk of dying as much as smoking. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and epidemiologists have found that friendships, family bonds, ties to neighbors and coworkers, and sense of belonging and community are critical for health and well-being. Yet loneliness rates have been high for years.

And then came 2020. With lockdowns and physical distancing, isolation and loneliness became top of mind for many. Countless media outlets covered the topic, and organizations representing just about every sector got involved in addressing it.

So what lessons can we draw from 2020 and what opportunities await in 2021? Read on to find out.

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Image by Nubefy Design for All via Unsplash

I. Key Opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic creates an opportunity to rethink and rebuild our public spaces and infrastructure; the products and services we use; our routines and rituals; and our cultural norms. At the same time, the ongoing presence of a deadly, infectious disease and the long shadow it will cast present challenges.

A general principle applies: Design with meaningful connection in mind. Whether planning a new building or neighborhood, or launching a new product or app feature, meaningful connection should be a goal and a success metric.

Embedding social connection as a core objective in housing and community development might take the form of co-living homes and shared spaces. Examples include companies like Common or larger developments like Culdesac, whose pedestrian- and bike-friendly environment facilitates casual interaction. More ideas here and here.

More active forms of transportation such as scooters and bikes, as well as mass transit offerings like buses and trains, get people together and more closely connected to their communities. Safety is a prerequisite; people stay isolated in their homes if they’re not comfortable stepping out onto the streets.

Entertainment can bring people together but, with movie theaters closed, Netflix and YouTube rule; it’s easy to retreat into our personal video universes. Even when entertainment takes place at home, it can be social, as we see with apps like Teleparty and Discord. Augmented reality gaming offers the promise of bringing more entertainment outdoors and into communities, like Pokémon Go did.

Across civilization and throughout history, food has long brought people together, yet we cook dinner for our families less frequently as we are more pressed for time. Innovations that lower the barriers to cooking and sharing meals could — in addition to leading to healthier diets — also bolster social connection.

We’re roughly 15 years into the era of digital social networks, and it’s high time to reimagine what they could be if they were laser-focused on meaningful, lasting, and robust social connections, rather than clicks, likes, and ad views. See below for recent developments in this space.

And we’re eager for solutions that fit a broader range of demographics. Although loneliness is more common among younger generations, most of the momentum has focused on older adults. We should broaden the scope of high level actions (such as policies, campaigns, and conferences) to include people of diverse ages and other demographics, while narrowing the scope of specific interventions (like targeted programs or apps).

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Image by Tom Rumble via Unsplash

II. New Research Findings

Here are a few significant — and surprising — findings from the year.

This study evaluated loneliness and social support among a national sample of over 1,500 participants at three times, before and during the pandemic. Contrary to expectations, loneliness levels stayed the same and social support actually increased. Read an analysis of why this might be here.

Similarly, this report found that teenagers were less lonely and spent more quality time with their families during the pandemic, compared to two years ago. Read more about this finding here. This report concluded that 67 percent of people say COVID-19 has not affected their friendships and many feel closer to their friends than before.

The “Great Work From Home Experiment of 2020” has yielded upsides and downsides. Among the downsides is a loss of kinship with colleagues. A study by Harvard researchers found that 60 percent of employees across industries have experienced worse social relations and 45 percent feel lonelier during the pandemic.

As a result, half of professionals are most looking forward to connecting with coworkers when they return to the office. It turns out, chitchats while refilling at the watercooler and smiles while passing each other in the hallways help us feel a sense of belonging.

Many events this year have made clear the deep economic, racial, and political divides in the US, which can affect people’s sense of belonging and community. For example, a recent study showed that perceived social cohesion at the neighborhood level is associated with loneliness, frequency of seeing friends, and life satisfaction.

Recent data suggest that the majority of Americans do not have friends with opposing political views. Researchers highlight two paths forward: polarization will continue to rise, or the pendulum will start swinging in the opposite direction. This guide recommends research-based strategies for bridging divides.

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Image by cottonbro via Pexels

III. New Developments & Trends

In March, the Supporting Older Americans Act of 2020 (H.R.4334) became law. It supports screening for loneliness among seniors in clinical settings and directs both the Assistant Secretary for Aging and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a long-term plan and recommendations related to social isolation.

In August, the Strengthening Social Connections Act of 2020 (H.R.8026) was introduced to advance the Administration for Community Living’s work related to social isolation and loneliness among older adults during the pandemic. These policies, along with the loneliness innovation challenge led by the US Department of Health & Human Services, indicate that the government is starting to take this issue seriously.

Drawing inspiration from the UK’s practice of “social prescribing,” a report earlier this year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that healthcare providers begin screening elderly patients for loneliness and partnering with community-based services to help them get socially engaged.

With initiatives like CareMore’s Togetherness program and Humana’s Far From Alone campaign, increasingly the healthcare space is recognizing that social connection is a health determinant.

Does social media actually help us be social in meaningful ways? More researchers are studying this question and, with the recent release of the Social Dilemma documentary, it has become a common dinner table topic.

So far the research is mixed. One study found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes per day decreased loneliness. Another reported that routine use was associated with social well-being, but emotional connection to social media had the opposite effect. This study concluded that excessive smartphone use did not change loneliness and that communicating feelings online actually reduced loneliness.

In 1973, a sociologist at Stanford published a seminal paper about the power of “weak ties,” or acquaintances you see occasionally but don’t know well. Similarly, Nicholas Christakis at Yale has written about how our extended social networks, including friends’ friends’ friends, influence our health. Now, we’re missing out on chance encounters and casual interactions that normally fuel our sense of community, and it may be affecting our social skills. Some recommend using this time to rekindle dormant ties.

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Image by Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

Especially during the pandemic, technology is an essential tool to stay in touch. 79 percent of people across ages say digital communications are key to maintaining their relationships right now. To meet this need, the landscape of social wellness startups is growing rapidly.

Weddings and graduations are taking place over virtual reality, people are simulating hugs through wearables, and peers are playing interactive games together online. From robot pets to holographic girlfriends, the approaches keep getting more creative and futuristic. Whether they work remains to be seen.

While intergenerational programs have been around for decades, their popularity has grown during the pandemic, with people of all ages coming together to support each other. Initiatives have included students making friendly phone calls to isolated older adults, families delivering groceries to vulnerable neighbors, and adults mentoring children remotely. These build on the growing ecosystem of startups like Nesterly, Papa, and CIRKEL that aim to connect different generations.

IV. Companies to Watch

In addition to some of the well-known, long-lived companies in this space (like Facebook, Nextdoor, Meetup, and Zoom), there are countless startups aimed at fostering friendship, community, and deeper connection. The amount of innovation is encouraging; see here for an inventory of the growing landscape.

We find these ones especially interesting: Cocoon and Fabriq are redesigning digital experiences to help you prioritize the relationships that matter most. Donut and Seredy are making it easier for coworkers to have casual watercooler chats while working remotely. Ethel’s Club and the Lounge are paving the way with membership-based communities. And AltspaceVR and Icebreaker are building digital places for people to gather.

V. Further Readings

Dive in deeper with these reports: The American Society on Aging published a journal dedicated to articles about preventing social isolation and loneliness. The Milken Institute summarized key takeaways from their Social Isolation Impact Summit. The Aspen Institute and Facebook shared insights about loneliness and technology. The AARP and United Health Foundations summarized research on loneliness among adults during the pandemic. For more, see here.

2020 was a popular year for books about social connection. Check out the following, and find additional book recommendations here.

  • Together by Vivek Murthy makes a case for loneliness as a public health concern and offers inspiring stories of making the world more connected.
  • The Rabbit Effect by Kelli Harding shares the surprising science of kindness, friendship, and community and suggests practical ways to apply it in our lives.
  • Friendship by Lydia Denworth explores the biological, psychological, and evolutionary foundations of friendship, starting with early life on the African savannas.
  • The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker examines how and why people gather and recommends ways for people to create more meaningful, memorable experiences.
  • The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz covers the societal underpinnings of loneliness as the defining condition of our time and explores innovative solutions.

Building H

Stories, interviews and perspectives on how we can build health into everyday life

Kasley Killam

Written by

Writing, speaking, and working on social health. MPH @ Harvard. Catalyzing connection @ socialhealthlabs.com. Say hi @ kasleykillam.com.

Building H

Building H seeks to reimagine the fundamentals of everyday life — how we eat, sleep, get from place to place, socialize and entertain ourselves — such that health is built in by design. Join us at www.buildingh.org.

Kasley Killam

Written by

Writing, speaking, and working on social health. MPH @ Harvard. Catalyzing connection @ socialhealthlabs.com. Say hi @ kasleykillam.com.

Building H

Building H seeks to reimagine the fundamentals of everyday life — how we eat, sleep, get from place to place, socialize and entertain ourselves — such that health is built in by design. Join us at www.buildingh.org.

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