It's common knowledge that many young people are lonely. Even though we're increasingly connected via social media, living in our family homes for longer and often crammed like sardines in shared flats, we're failing to truly connect with one another. Just this week official figures found that 16-to-24-year-olds are more than three times as likely to feel "always or often" more lonely than people over 64.
According to the Office for National Statistics, almost one in 10 of young adults regularly feel lonely – the highest proportion of any age group and far higher than the elderly, who, ONS say, could become "more resilient to loneliness" in their old age. The mental and physical health risks of loneliness in any age group have been known and written about for a while, with studies deeming it more dangerous to health than smoking and obesity and calls for it to be named a public health hazard.
So, it's no wonder that academics, health professionals and technology specialists are putting their heads together in a bid to combat the issue. The latest piece of kit designed to "cure" loneliness is unusual. Roboticists from Yonsei University and KAIST in South Korea have created a prototype robot specifically for lonely young people.
Named Fribo (and looking distinctly like the character Scratch from the Dragon Ball cartoon series), the little black device is designed to make people feel more connected to their friends and encourage them to reach out to one another, by broadcasting what they're up to at any given time in a "virtual living space". In practice, it means that if you're making yourself dinner, cleaning your flat or just chilling in front of Netflix (again), you'll be able to let your pals know.
Fribo has a microphone and a sensor to track your movements but doesn't move and can't record, so is said to maintain users' privacy, Hackaday reports. It passively monitors your home and when it notices you doing something it recognises, such as opening the front door or fridge door, it tells your friends.
Your friends then have two options if they want to start an interaction: knocking to express their curiosity or clapping to demonstrate empathy.
But would solo millennials actually want to be greeted by a robot after a long day? Based on a sample of young people who spoke to Refinery29, the answer is no. Tamika, a 32-year-old who lived alone for three years until recently, called Fribo "creepy" and said that knowing what her friends were doing in their homes wouldn't necessarily make her more inclined to contact them. If anything, it could make her withdraw into herself even more.
"I have a tendency to lurk on social media and if they were doing something fun I'd just get more FOMO. It might even have the opposite effect. If I already know what my friends are doing, why would I need to call them?," she added. "It might discourage people from meeting up IRL because there'd be an illusion of contact."
In the same way that social media, particularly Instagram posts and Stories, can give you a false sense that you're up-to-date with what's going on in your friends' lives, Fribo could make you feel like you don't need to see them or talk to them, Tamika continued. A "robot equivalent of a pet" or something you could interact with directly would arguably be more effective at making users feel less lonely, she said.
Violet, a 23-year-old student, who lived alone for a year in London before recently moving to her own place abroad, said "technology is not a replacement for human interaction," and questioned why lonely people couldn't just get off their phones and see people in the flesh.
"I have people over for dinner or go over to theirs when I feel lonely," she said. "I check Instagram or call them if I want to know what they're up to. The idea of spending time with a robot rather than just talking directly to people is incredibly depressing."
26-year-old Nadia was less averse to the idea but still didn't believe it would help young people to nurture important relationships. "I think it's a cute idea that could bring people together if everyone in a friend group had their own device," she told Refinery29. Although the novelty would likely wear off, she added.
What's more, she believes it wouldn't necessarily help people to forge deep connections with one another. "My best relationships are based on vulnerability and mutually opening up to each other about deep stuff, and having a robot tracking your every move and broadcasting it to people doesn't do much to create meaningful bonds."
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