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Loneliness has reached “epidemic” levels in recent years. The issue is especially pronounced in younger generations.
A recent study shows young people aged 18-24 are most likely to say they have felt lonely (75%) in contrast to 63% of people aged 55 and over. The survey also shows not wanting to burden others is the main barrier to people talking about their feelings of loneliness.
The U.K. government recently appointed a minister for loneliness to combat the issue.
It’s not just a British problem. In a recent study, 30 percent of U.S. millennials said they always or often feel lonely and 22 percent said they have “no friends”. Loneliness may be even more pervasive among members of Gen Z.
The toll that loneliness takes goes beyond just emotional well-being. It is associated with higher blood pressure and heart disease. Loneliness has been shown to have a health impact similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has also been seen as a possible cause of antisocial behaviour and even, by some, as a factor in mass shootings.
Why there’s debate:
The individual causes of something as personal as loneliness are inherently difficult to identify and likely vary from person to person. Social media is frequently pointed to as a major factor - with one survey showing 26% of daily social media users reporting they feel lonely very or quite often. Young people — who spend much more time communicating digitally than older generations — are missing out on valuable in-person interactions, many argue. Some believe that the curated versions of ourselves that we put online make it difficult to create real connections with others.
The influence of social media may be overstated, others argue. Loneliness among millennials and Gen Z may be driven by personal and societal challenges that are more pronounced in their generations, such as economic pressures, workplace changes and difficulty starting a family.
A number of remedies for the loneliness epidemic have been proposed. Some have argued for redesigning cities in ways that promote social interaction. A variety of innovations — co-working spaces, friend-finder apps, digital pets and even a loneliness pill — have been launched in an effort to curb the problem.
Loneliness as a pattern of behaviour can exacerbate issues
“It's important to remember that some people can feel lonely in a crowd, and the most effective interventions to reduce loneliness involve counselling to help individuals tackle negative patterns of thinking.” - Dr Timothy Matthews, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College to the BBC.
Is technology a convenient scapegoat?
“When it comes to loneliness, I have a feeling that the culprit isn’t so much technology as the fact that many millennials are in their 30s, which is a natural time for friendship dynamics to change: people start focusing on advancing their careers and building families rather than socialising with pals.” Arwa Mahdawi, Guardian
It can impact young women at work
“Feeling isolated can have a bad impact on young women’s confidence and their mental health. Combined with a lack of networks, this can make it harder to look for jobs and can lead to young women being shut out of the labour market. More support is needed for young women who want to work.” - Dr Darole Easton, Independent
Young people are spending less time with each other
“Although the amount of time teens spent with their friends face to face has declined since the 1970s, the drop accelerated after 2010 – just as smartphones use started to grow. Compared with teenagers in previous decades, iGen teens are less likely to get together with their friends. They’re also less likely to go to parties, go out with friends, date, ride in cars for fun, go to shopping malls or go to the movies.” - Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge to The Conversation
Young people don’t learn how to be alone
“They’ve been surrounded by conversation their whole lives, so when that silence happens, they have a hard time just being in it and they take it that there’s something wrong.” — University of Delaware professor Dawn Fallik to NBC News
Social media causes feelings of isolation and inadequacy
“Online activities hits us twice, once as a distraction and/or substitution for real social interaction and then again as a representation via social media of all the things we aren’t doing and should be engaged in thus leaving us feeling lonely and [fear of missing out].” — Child psychologist Melissa Sporn to USA Today
Young people are up against challenges older generations never faced
“While it is now fashionable to refer to this cohort of college and university students as a coddled generation of ‘snowflakes,’ the reality is they face unprecedented challenges and circumstances.” — Varun Soni, Los Angeles Times
The issue is too complex to point to one cause
“As with most problems of noticeable impact and size, contemporary isolation arises from a structure of root causes — pervasive individualism, the dislocation effects of school and work, the fraying of communities — which is greater and more persistent than the hopeful efforts of scattered individuals.” — Elizabeth Bruenig, Washington Post
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