HOW ASIA IS BATTLING THE LONELINESS EPIDEMIC
By TBWA Backslash Asia
So much of our daily lives now exist within devices and virtual worlds. With just a tap of a button, we are instantaneously connected to people around the world.
But while digital adoption continues to grow, with social media users increasing 4.2% in 2022 – translating to a further 190 million people joining the global online population – people are feeling more isolated than ever.
With society no longer built to facilitate face-to-face interactions, people are struggling to find meaningful connection in their lives, with over one third of adults worldwide experiencing feelings of loneliness.
No region or age group is immune from this loneliness epidemic, but we are all finding ways to adapt and connect. Across Asia, we’re seeing many weird and wonderful coping mechanisms to help fill the void – from social spaces, community concepts, and apps for more meaningful interactions – as modern society evolves, so do new opportunities for businesses to play a part.
THE QUEST FOR REPLACEMENT COMPANIONSHIPS
Struggling with lack of human connection, people are seeking new ways to combat loneliness through alternative companionships.
Some are turning to animals – with over 75% of pet owners acquiring their pets during the pandemic. In Singapore, 89% of pet owners say that their pets help improve their mental health. During lockdown in China, we saw an unusual trend of people making cardboard pets to alleviate loneliness and boredom, even taking them out for walks – threading a fine line between lockdown creativity and isolation-driven madness.
Another contributing factor to growing pet ownership is the falling birth rates across the world. As young adults develop new attitudes towards relationships and family, many are deciding not to have children and opting for pets instead. Brands are beginning to cater to this child-free demographic, with a recent example being KFC in China swapping its children’s toys for pet toys inside its meal boxes.
Pets aren’t the only non-human companions that people are turning to. There’s also been a growing popularity for ‘spirit dolls’ in Indonesia, driven by local celebrities showcasing their hyper-realistic dolls on social media. The craze originated from Thailand, where Luk Thep (Angel Child) dolls are believed to have spirits of unborn children and bring good fortune to their owners who treat them as their real child, carrying with them around wherever they go.
In Japan, we’re seeing facial recognition tech and AI being incorporated into dolls and digital avatars for more realistic and human-like interactions. Toy-maker Takara Tomy launched ‘Ami-chan’, an electronic doll that serves as a pseudo grandchild to help tackle loneliness amongst the elderly, while tech company Gatebox has taken things a step further with 3D holographic AI characters. The more you interact with them, the more they get to know you and adapt to become the perfect roommate.
While these tools have been proven to boost mental health, they also carry the dangerous risk of causing human relationships to fall by the wayside – as seen by a handful of Gatebox customers deciding to marry their holographic companions.
THE QUEST FOR CONNECTION VIA SERVICES
There are also many businesses and initiatives that remain focused on helping people connect to fellow humans and fostering richer interactions between them.
Across Asia we’ve seen ‘companionship for hire’ services mushroom. From shadow buddies in Singapore, to listening friends in Japan, dating surrogates in India, and butler cafes in China. While these rental services tackle loneliness by providing real in-person interactions, they are essentially band-aid solutions and doesn’t allow for true authentic relationships that many people crave.
This is where a new wave of platonic connection apps come into play. Platforms like Umity are attempting to bring back an element of spontaneity, enabling users to create or browse social experiences around them, even arrange for a meetup in as little as five minutes. Events range from group activities to one-to-one meet ups, making it easier for people to socialise around common interests, be it a game of tennis, a walk in the park, or a pint at the local bar.
Last year, online travel agent HostelWorld launched a new function in its app called The Solo System, a dedicated feature to make it easier for travellers to meet new people during their trip. Before booking a hostel, you can “See Who’s Going” and staying in hostels on the dates you’re searching.
Traveller profiles include photos and destinations they’ve visited – providing easy conversation starters. A new chat feature allows you to start getting to know people before your trip, and users can even join chats that are categorised by travelling interests.
In Hong Kong, where 65% of people eat out four or more times a week, FoodMatesss is an app for those who dread eating alone. Users simply set their favourite cuisines/ dishes and their match parameters including age group and gender, and the app randomly matches them with lunch or dinner buddies.
Employers are also recognising that a demanding work culture with long hours is contributing to the problem – hindering people’s ability to meet new people and find romantic relationships. In Japan, more than 800 companies have signed up to an AI-powered dating service that helps employees find love at work, recognising the benefits of romantic connection in creating happier and more productive workers.
The Aill goen app ensures safety and responsible behaviour by limiting its users to the employees of participating companies, and uses AI recommendations to guide conversations such as the right time to ask for a date, and the type of activity that might be most suitable based on chat history.
The fact that Japanese employers are now actively match-making when knowing full well that women traditionally leave the workforce after marriage, signals an acknowledgement of the magnitude of the loneliness epidemic, and its impact on everything from morale, productivity, demographic shifts, and the local economy at large.
THE QUEST FOR BRANDS TO CONNECT
It’s clear that technology is both the problem and the solution. People are now desperate for interpersonal relationships that bring substance and depth and have moved beyond the superficial chase for likes and follows.
For many, it’s now quality over quantity.
It is also important to understand how traditional definitions of relationships and companionships are being challenged in an era of digital connection. From situationships, mouth friends, and non-monogamous relationships, to DINKs and Boston Marriages – people are breaking away from norms and expectations, as they look to create their own social and romantic structures that work for their individual lifestyle.
There’s an opportunity here for brands to drive new ways for people to find more intentional interactions and genuine relationships. It is time to experiment with formats and go beyond talking, texting, and typing to find more immersive ways to connect people.
Brands can no longer generalise when designing connection experiences for consumers and should instead focus on creating common ground for meaningful interaction to foster richer companionships of all shapes and sizes.
The connection economy is booming, and our collective well-being is at stake.
Connection Quest is just one of 39 global cultural shifts identified in TBWA\Backslash’s recently published 2023 Edges Report. Download the full report here.