The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We spent a year talking to lonely people. Here’s what we learned.

In the story of modern loneliness, the internet plays a more complicated role than you think

A grid of collages by artist Najeebah Al-Ghadban
(Najeebah Al-Ghadban for The Washington Post)
4 min

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Friendships that start in real life migrate online and vice versa. Facebook arguments pop back up at the Thanksgiving table. And thoughts too sensitive to discuss with friends and family find a home on TikTok.

“The internet” isn’t a separate world — our contemporary lives are a tapestry of the digital and “in real life.”

Is this new social landscape making us lonelier? That’s the question I examined as the U.S. Surgeon General marked epidemic levels of loneliness and lawmakers called for limits on teens’ social media use.

Self-reported loneliness among Americans peaked in early 2021 during the coronavirus pandemic, with 1 in 4 people saying they felt lonely “a lot of the day.” As people emerged from pandemic restrictions, things got better, but 44 million U.S. adults still report concerning levels of loneliness as of 2023. Some of them told me that returning to friendships and activities after the worst days of the pandemic felt exhausting, confusing or even impossible. For many, social media was a lifeline. For others, it was a road to nowhere.

Here’s my take after talking to social psychology experts, users of technology and tech companies: Asking whether “technology” affects “loneliness” is far too broad a question. Which technology? Who’s using it, and for what? Researchers are finding that social media use, for example, helps some teens while harming others.

Below are the key highlights of my reporting from the “Plugged in, Left Out” series.

People choose to unplug from social media

Some people are more vulnerable than others to social media’s downsides. They use the apps compulsively or feel overwhelmed by what they see, leading them to cut the cord entirely. Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous, a 12-step program in the format of Alcoholics Anonymous, now has more than 100 weekly meetings worldwide.

Read more: They left social media for good. Are they happier?

TikTok is a resource for lonely moms

TikTok is known as an app for teenagers, but CEO Shou Zi Chew has said its average user is an adult “well past college age.” This year, parents used the video app to discuss the crushing loneliness that comes from parenting without adequate support from partners, families and health-care professionals. Some said they learned about common postpartum conditions including depression from TikTok after their providers skipped that discussion during pre- and postpartum checkups.

Read more: On TikTok, women get real about the pitfalls of motherhood

Friend-making apps actually work

Young adults say they don’t often rub shoulders with potential new friends in real life. So they’re turning to friend-making apps to close the gap. Could online friend-matching become as common as online dating?

Read more: Loneliness is taking friend-making apps mainstream

How to make friends online

Lots of us hate silence

When we’re lonely, it’s tough to sit in silence. Some people listen to podcasts all day long (and all night, too) to help with mood or focus. It’s like having a constant friend inside your ear, they say.

Read more: The nonstop podcast listeners are on to something

For the lonely, infinite-scroll apps are bad medicine

Americans of different ages say that time on social media is a balm amid long work days and dwindling public resources. But algorithmic apps were designed to keep us scrolling and it can be tough to know when to stop.

Read more: For the lonely, tech offers friendship – at a price

Senior living facilities are bullish on virtual reality

This is a sentence I never thought I would write. Stay tuned to my story on virtual reality tech popping up in eldercare settings around the country — and what it means for our older friends and family.

Share your loneliness journey

Do you have a story about technology and loneliness you’d like to share? Send me an email at

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