Americans are trapped in a loneliness epidemic. Across the country, people are having fewer social interactions, spending more time alone, and reporting fewer close friends. These trends aren't just a symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic — while the last few years may have accelerated the loneliness crisis, the shift toward a more solitary life has been happening for years.
A new report from the US surgeon general finds that social activities of all kinds have declined, and it compared the health impact of this increasing loneliness to smoking 12 cigarettes a day. My own research found that Americans are in the throes of a "friendship recession" with people reporting smaller social circles and fewer close friends. This rising tide of isolation is particularly acute among young people: The time that Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 spend with friends has declined considerably over the past two decades, according to the surgeon general's report, from an average of 2.5 hours a day to just 40 minutes.
It seems as if everything in modern life is conspiring to perpetuate the loneliness problem — from the design of our technology to where we build our homes. We already know how addictive social media can be: Nearly one in three Americans reports being online "almost constantly," according to the Pew Research Center, while a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that social media helps fuel feelings of loneliness.
The latest development that threatens to make this loneliness crisis even worse is the rise of artificial intelligence. The release of OpenAI's ChatGPT in late 2022 has led to an explosion of interest in the potential to integrate AI-driven chatbots into our lives. Derek Thompson, a writer at The Atlantic, suggested that AI in its current manifestation is mostly a diversion, a waste of time. That may be true, but as previous technologies have shown us, it's crucial to take stock of the ways in which AI could shift our lives before it becomes ubiquitous.
We've already seen how dependence on technology can weigh on our mental health, and now chatbots and other AI programs could further replace the critical social interactions that help us build community. Many Amercians already harbor this worry: A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that one of Americans' top concerns with AI is the technology's inherent "lack of human connection." Our time on earth is limited. While the convenience of AI could provide many benefits, it can't replace time spent with real, living people.
What do we lose when we lose the little interactions?
Humans have used technology to handle dangerous, monotonous, and menial tasks for generations. And there are definitely areas where AI chatbots could be useful — especially when it comes to business. Software developers are using AI to streamline the coding process, lawyers are using it to help draft legal briefs, and some businesses are experimenting with chatbots in customer-service roles. While the use cases could boost a business' bottom line, it's important to be clear-eyed about the problems that arise from using AI to replace routine social exchanges.
No human interaction is meaningless. Small acts of kindness (or cruelty) can have far-reaching effects, and even relationships with people we don't know well can be valuable. Sociologists have dubbed these brief encounters as "weak social ties" — a brief chat with a neighbor, a compliment from a stranger, or the barista at the local coffee shop asking how you've been. While the interactions often seem trivial, the benefits of these encounters are significant. Interviewing New York City residents living alone during the pandemic, the sociologists Eric Klinenberg and Jenny Leigh found that people missed being around "familiar strangers," an experience that gave them a sense of place and belonging. Studies have shown that interacting with a wide array of people on a regular basis makes us happier, and my own research has shown that when it comes to friendships, more is better.
One of the profoundly important parts of developing social ties — whether strong or weak — is that they connect us to places and people we might not otherwise have access to. It might be a potential job opportunity or an introduction to a new community, such as a book club, religious congregation, or sports league. In a 2021 survey, we found that nearly half of young adults made a close friend through their existing friendship network. Our current friendships beget new friendships.
Using AI to automate these interactions, both trivial and more substantial, would deprive people of their mental and social benefits. The pandemic already gave us a glimpse at what happens when these ties fray: a rising number of airport freakouts, more frequent fighting in schools, and a general increase in antisocial behavior, among others. When we spend less time with each other, we lose practice in getting along in shared spaces. This is why AI is such a poor substitute for real-world interactions. We need to spend more time with each other.
The shift toward AI relationships isn't just a theoretical possibility: Some entrepreneurs and companies are already working to create chatbot-driven connections. Caryn Marjorie, a 23-year-old influencer with more than 1.8 million Snapchat followers, recently released CarynAI — an "immersive AI experience" featuring videos of Marjorie that she says provide a "virtual girlfriend" for those willing to pony up $1 per minute. According to Marjorie's site, the GPT-4-powered chatbot replicates Marjorie's voice and personality to the point that it feels like "you're talking directly to Caryn herself." While Marjorie stands to make a tidy profit from CarynAI — based on a recent beta test she estimated that the chatbot could generate $5 million in monthly revenue — she also says the goal in developing the AI avatar was to "cure loneliness" for her overwhelmingly male fan base.
While it has garnered a lot of attention, CarynAI isn't the first attempt at providing people with companionship through an AI chatbot. Replika, another AI-chatbot friend marketed to people who are "lonely, depressed, or have few social connections" launched in 2017. The company behind Replika has over 10 million registered users, and the chatbot receives millions of messages each week. Snap recently deployed its own AI chatbot, called My AI, aimed at supplementing social interactions on the app. In an interview with The Verge, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said: "The big idea is that in addition to talking to our friends and family every day, we're going to talk to AI every day."
One problem that's already apparent is the amount of time users are spending with chatbots like CarynAI. Although many are designed to wind down conversations after a designated period of time, there are no enforced limits, and Marjorie's manager told The Washington Post that many fans are already spending hours each day sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with the bot.
At least in the early iterations, AI chatbots appear to offer the next step in the curation of individualized experiences — another way to mold our world to our own preferences and mirror our own thoughts. Replika promises that it is "always here to listen and talk. Always on your side." But that's not a realistic model for most relationships, which should be built on a foundation of give-and-take and mutual obligation, rather than one-way devotion. In a review of Replika, Joshua Bote of the San Francisco Chronicle put it succinctly: "Replika, in its total fealty to its users, mostly serves as a vessel for users' wants and needs." The chatbot is unlikely to ask a user for a favor, much less encourage them to address destructive or selfish behavior.
As I argued in a recent newsletter, this kind of one-way relationship is a poor substitute for traditional friendship:
"The relationships that matter are formative. They change us. They provide us opportunities to practice forgiveness, patience, and kindness. The most valuable relationships are those that motivate us to become better. Relationships that do not require empathy and understanding rob us of the very things that make them so important."
Most of us do not become better people through sheer force of will. Rather, our relationships give us reason to make difficult choices and changes. We make sacrifices for the people we love and who love us. In doing so, we can become the best version of ourselves.
A problem for Gen Z
Growing up, my brothers and I would often complain to my parents that we were bored. After explaining to us that this was not their problem, they would typically shoo us outside and we would wander the neighborhood. Sometimes we would bump into friends or talk to neighbors. If we were feeling ambitious, we would bike over to a few local shops. That world of casual interaction that my brothers and I grew up in is largely gone. Teens especially are spending far less time with each other out in the real world. In the late 1970s, more than half of high-school seniors saw their friends every day, but that dropped to only 28% in 2017. Today, young people can wander around the limitless expanse of the internet while parked in their basement or bedroom.
Gen Z may be uniquely predisposed to seek out relationships with AI-generated avatars. Not only are they more comfortable using technology in this way, compared to previous generations, young adults are also participating less often in traditional social activities like having regular family dinners, attending religious services, or playing sports. In a 2021 study, we found that only 38% of Gen Zers grew up having daily meals with their family. In contrast, more than three-quarters (76%) of baby boomers report that they had daily meals with their family when they were young. More structured social outlets, such as youth sports, are experiencing a rapid decline.
Young people are not only entering adulthood with fewer close friends than in the past, but fewer opportunities to forge new social connections. Other than social media, young adults have diminishing options to connect with their peers. But social media presents its own risks. The surgeon general recently said that social media represents a "profound risk of harm" to adolescent mental health, which has worsened in recent years.
A way AI could potentially make things better
This doesn't mean there aren't opportunities for AI to enrich our lives in some ways, especially for people who face challenges that limit more traditional social opportunities. Brown University and the Hasbro toy company were awarded a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to develop AI pets to help seniors with everyday tasks, such as remembering to take medication. My colleague Brent Orrell recently wrote about how AI chatbots might allow neurodivergent people to better navigate challenging social dynamics.
In researching new AI chatbots, I was struck by the missed opportunity for disconnected people to forge new connections. What if instead of substituting for human connections that people are lacking, AI chatbots could connect lonely people to each other in an attempt to foster personal connections? Imagine an AI chatbot that identifies people with similar interests or needs and then brokers an introduction and encourages real-world social interactions. Think of it as a mutual friend. Instead of using it to strip away users' humanity, AI technology should enhance social opportunities.
While there may be upsides to the technology, my own studies on human connection and our social lives make me concerned about leaning on AI to avoid the unpleasant realities of human existence. No one goes through life without ever feeling lonely. It's a fundamental and universal human experience. The goal should not be to avoid these feelings, but to use these experiences to inform our decisions about how we want to live and what really matters to us.
Artificial intelligence is poised to transform American society, but making things easier is not always an improvement, especially when it comes to social interactions. As Klinenberg, the sociologist, notes: "Efficiency is the enemy of social life." The solution to loneliness is not to develop increasingly clever social distractions, but to go outside and wander around. What we need now more than ever are safe and accessible public spaces for people to wander.
Daniel Cox is director of the Survey Center on American Life and research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
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