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Coping with social isolation and loneliness together

Written by Sarah Friar

Sarah Friar is the CEO of Nextdoor, the world’s largest neighbourhood network that enables neighbours around the world to build connections, stay informed and help each other in their everyday lives. Building connections in the real world is a universal human need. That truth, and the reality that neighbourhoods are one of the most important and useful communities in our lives, has been a source of inspiration and a guiding principle for Nextdoor from the start. Today, neighbours rely on Nextdoor in more than 241,000 neighbourhoods around the world in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Australia, Sweden and Denmark.

As I pass the eight month mark at Nextdoor, I continue to be inspired daily by what I’ve had the privilege to observe neighbours doing on our platform. In January, I wrote about how at Nextdoor, we are gloriously swimming upstream against the current of other technology platforms; we are passionate about the global power of local. But in reality, it’s so many of you, around the world, who are doing the meaningful work to fight isolation, polarisation, and lack of community engagement – proving that the neighbourhood is where change begins. 

Technology has revolutionised our world – in many ways for the better. It’s an enormously powerful tool that allows us to stay in touch with friends and family across the globe; it provides us with a source of endless information at our fingertips; and it entertains us in new and exciting ways. 

But technology has also contributed to a more isolated life for millions of people around the world. In the 2019 World Economic Forum panel on loneliness, experts discussed how technology is fueling loneliness and the empathy deficit in our lives, despite the promise of bringing people closer. According to UK charity The Campaign to End Loneliness, 40% of people in the UK under the age of 25 report feeling lonely often or very often, and 27% of people over the age of 75 report feeling the same. In the United States, a Cigna study found that over 40% of adults report feeling lonely. The study also noted that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity. Research in Australia found a similar trend, with 28% of people saying they feel lonely at least three days every week.

Recognising loneliness as a nationwide epidemic, in early 2018 the UK government appointed a Minister of Loneliness to tackle the social and health issues caused by social isolation. 

Growing up in the village of Sion Mills in Northern Ireland, I benefited from an upbringing where everyone in my neighbourhood knew each other by name, or even nickname. I grew up at the height of the Troubles, a human-created disaster that divided people based on religion and led to decades of violence. But much like former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy remarks in his piece on loneliness, this tragedy brought our community together in deep and memorable ways.

As I grew up and moved to new communities around the world, I noticed the deep connection that I had become accustomed to between neighbours, and people in general, was vanishing. Even as I embarked on a new and exciting chapter in my life – starting my own family and meeting inspiring people in London, South Africa, and Silicon Valley – I often felt lonely. 

Why? 

As a society, we have become worse at connecting face-to-face and building impactful relationships with one another. Belonging is a universal human need, and in every corner of the world today people are yearning to feel more connected with real people in real places in real ways. So, how can we work together to combat the social isolation we feel and forge a more connected world? 

At Nextdoor, we believe that change starts with each of us opening our front doors and building deeper connections with the people nearest to us: our neighbours. Last year in Europe, we introduced the “Hello Neighbour” Challenge, encouraging neighbours to reach out to each other. Whether it was to help with a particular task or simply to get to know each other better, neighbours across Europe rallied together to pledge their time to help combat loneliness in their local communities. A study we conducted in the UK found that while only 56% of the general public have two or more neighbours they can rely on in a time of need, 79% of Nextdoor members feel they have neighbours they can depend on. We see everyday how neighbours turn to Nextdoor to break the ice and meet new neighbours, and then turn those online relationships into real world bonds and friendships. This holiday season, a time when feelings of loneliness are often recognised, we’ll launch our first ever global loneliness campaign in hopes of inspiring more neighbours around the world to form deeper connections in their local communities to help cope with loneliness.

But there’s plenty we can do before then. Over the next few days, we will share in your newsfeed and on Nextdoor’s blog inspiring stories from neighbours around the world who are utilising Nextdoor to make real social impact in their communities. Recently, I travelled to France to spend time with René, the creator of P’tit Bistrot Solidaire, who opens the doors of his local church community centre every two weeks to welcome neighbours for a morning of coffee, chocolate, and conversation.

In Nuneaton, Jan started a social group for older people in the community to tackle isolation and loneliness. The group meets three times a week and member Jim said thanks to the group he has found a new lease of life.

In Spain, I met a group of neighbours who pooled their talents to produce a short film about their vibrant and thriving community. In Australia, Cheryl, a recent empty nester, recently turned to Nextdoor to form new friendships as she headed into a new chapter of her life. A quick post on Nextdoor offering up a cup of coffee and a chat led to dozens of neighbours coming together to get to know one another.

These powerful member stories inspire me every day and I know we’ll see even more of them throughout the rest of the year. Please take five minutes over the coming days to read and be inspired. We hope you will feel energised to “take five” to help, or ask for help, in your community too, and to tell your neighbours on Nextdoor about your experience. A quick conversation at your local store or a knock on the door of a neighbour who might be struggling could make all the difference. In my case, I recently used Nextdoor to find a non-profit organisation that matches teenagers with older people, to help teach them new technologies, and more importantly, help my teens’ learn valuable lessons from folks with a lifetime of experience.

Together, we have an opportunity to change the trajectory of social isolation around the world. If we do not focus on rebuilding authentic connections, we risk retreating further into our disconnected lives and unravelling the social fabric that is woven so deeply into strong communities. I’ve found that when you give to your community, you end up getting so much more out of it. At Nextdoor, we strive to provide a platform that will motivate you to reach out to those around you and to take the necessary steps to build stronger, real world connections among your local communities. In the words of one of our members: “you might just meet someone wonderful.” 

All the best,

Sarah Friar 


For more inspiring stories of neighbours coming together, be sure to check out your Nextdoor newsfeed each day this week and follow us on Instagram and Twitter

Thanks to experts from The Big Lunch, Campaign to End Loneliness, the UK Government, AARP and Cigna for speaking with us on this topic.

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