Politico: ‘I care about it’: Sen. Chris Murphy’s battle against loneliness

By Erin Schumaker

November 5, 2023

HARTFORD, Conn. — Sen. Chris Murphy looks at us and doesn’t like what he sees.

We don’t get out enough and it’s no wonder considering the amount of time we spend on our phones. We haven’t gotten back to our pre-pandemic social routines and it shows: While 1 in 2 Americans reported being lonely prior to 2020, Covid turbocharged the problem.

The Connecticut Democrat calls loneliness “one of the most important political issues of our time” and he’s at the head of an unspoken alliance of policymakers who see it as a key post-pandemic public health issue. The surgeon general, a Republican House member from small-town Nebraska, and the GOP governor of Utah are among those on a mission to help us reconnect.

They admit there’s no quick fix, so they are batting around ideas, from funding community groups to regulating social media, as they grapple with how government can help us break out of our malaise.

“I care about it,” Murphy said. “And I’m willing to spend the time to try to understand it.”

This year, Murphy’s written op-eds on isolation and technology. He’s held roundtables. In July, he introduced legislation with fellow Democrat Tina Smith of Minnesota laying out a government strategy to advance social connection, proposing a White House office, an advisory council, and $5 million in research funding.

[…] Murphy explained his philosophy during a two-mile stroll through the business district and decaying south end of his hometown, the state capital, Hartford. He walked along the overgrown sidewalk dotted with Red Stripe beer bottles and talked with anyone on his route about their day-to-day problems, such as being unable to afford housing and needing better jobs.

Unshaven and outfitted in athletic gear for his annual walk across his state, Murphy was emphatic that despite being an imperfect messenger, he felt compelled to lead.

“What the government is supposed to do is create the rules of the economy and society, which makes it easier for us all to live happier, healthier, fuller lives,” he said.

[…]Lawmakers need to back up and figure out what’s going on, he said.

A hint came when he published an op-ed on loneliness on the conservative news site The Bulwark last year and got more positive feedback in Connecticut than anything he’d ever written on foreign policy, guns or health care. It made him question his approach as a lawmaker. “It was a language they understood. Their kids are lonely. They’re feeling lonely,” he told a forum on building connected communities at Harvard in October.

As Murphy sees it, Americans feel exhausted and overwhelmed. They’re working longer and can’t disconnect from their jobs. They have fewer friends and it’s harder to carve out time for those they do have. They’re exhausted by how fast technology is evolving and the unforeseen mental health impacts of social media, leaving them — and their kids — vulnerable.

He sees an opportunity for bipartisan work in that shared reality.

Murphy’s first attempt at loneliness policy, the “National Strategy for Social Connection Act,” was born out of those realizations. The bill calls for creating an office of social connection, with a director who would advise the president and create a national strategy combining public health, technology and social infrastructure to foster social connection. An advisory council with members from the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Veterans Affairs, Education, Commerce and other agencies would help assess and implement the plan.

[…] “He and I can make a pretty good team on this,” Murphy said of Murthy, explaining that there’s also a limit to what the surgeon general can do. “He can’t go out and build a political coalition. He can’t do hand-to-hand combat inside the Congress.”

There, Murphy sees a need for more social media regulation, economic policy to provide more free time and direct support for the types of social organizations people used to belong to in droves.

While he expects difficulty in directing money to barber shops or bowling alleys, he sees growing consensus around regulating social media.

On that, Murphy has proposed a bipartisan bill with Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Katie Britt (R-Ala.) to regulate teenagers’ access to Facebook, TikTok and other sites, and ban kids younger than 13 from the platforms.

“There’s no question that it’s not too late to properly regulate social media,” Murphy said. “We haven’t tried.”

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This summer, Murphy introduced the National Strategy for Social Connection Act, legislation to combat America’s epidemic of loneliness and promote social connection in our communities. Earlier this year, Murphy co-wrote an op-ed in the Daily Beast with Ian Marcus Corbin, a philosopher at Harvard Medical School and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita, to call for a spiritual renaissance in American politics. In April, Murphy also authored an op-ed in TIME with Richard Weissbourd, a Senior Lecturer and the faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on how America’s obsession with individual success has come at the expense of our sense of community and the collective good. Murphy first outlined the politics of loneliness in a piece for the Bulwark last year.