Before the internet, people needed to travel to a physical location in order to participate in a community. Today, our social world is being constructed, expressed, and experienced through a series of screens and carefully curated posts. Our perspective on the world is affirmed any moment of the day or night we choose to turn our attention to a device. The growing homogenization of our social networks may feel validating, but it is also a sacrifice. Employers have shown that diversity in the workplace produces smarter, more effective groups just as diversity in schools produces better educational outcomes.
We have a collective understanding that our social behavior is harming us. Loneliness is gaining attention as a public health issue as studies suggest that loneliness can decrease life expectancy and increase the likelihood of developing heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. The youngest generation uses handheld technology to the point of developing skeletal problems, yet they are also reportedly the loneliest generation.
As a practitioner of social cohesion, as a social worker, as a millennial, I can say that the residents of the Twin Cities are longing for more meaningful connection to one another. When I sit down for a one-to-one conversation with someone, one of the first questions I ask is “What do you value the most?” I am often struck by the shift following this question. People pause, open up, and relax. It’s a surprising thing to discuss with a stranger, yet it allows the conversation to start with refreshing authenticity.
Our social behavior has important consequences beyond the individual. Our lack of personal contact with others also threatens the health of our institutions. When our public forums happen online instead of in the public square, church, or school gymnasium, we are less accountable to our neighbors. Likewise, we are less likely to develop social bonds with people who may think, look, and live differently than we do. How can we address homelessness when outreach workers, housing developers, government officials, and people experiencing housing instability do not know or understand one another? How can we improve educational outcomes when our schools and neighborhoods continue to segregate by race and family income? How can we have a thriving community if education, business, government, and civic institutions are not working together?
Conversely, we benefit when members of our institutions break down the walls between them. Regarding housing instability, there are several powerful examples in the Twin Cities. Cross-sector coalitions like the Unsheltered Homelessness Design Team are able to make significant strides when government agencies, nonprofits, and people with lived experience gather together to problem solve. People experiencing housing instability have more access to programs and resources when nonprofits set up office hours in public libraries, parks, and transit stations. Metro Transit has established a team on its police force to work alongside mental health workers in order to decrease the criminalization of homelessness and increase access to services for people sleeping on the train.
Our individual and institutional networks have power. The more we connect with those who are different, the more we break down walls and move beyond the screens and silos, the healthier and more effective we will be. Social cohesion is one antidote to the public health crisis of loneliness as well as the structural barriers constructed by our institutions.
Maia Uhrich is a staff member.