Mind and Body

Young Americans are lonelier than ever, and it's not because of Covid-19

The current "one-size-fits" all approach to helping the lonely isn't working.

Illustration of loneliness.

In a recent column, Bloomberg’s Sarah Green Carmichael asks, “Where’s the sympathy for the lonely young people?” amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Societally, Carmichael writes, we empathize with the lonely elderly and roll our eyes at the lonely youth. After all, they have Netflix and Zoom. Do they really have any right to complain? She settles on yes.

“I’d like to see a little more understanding directed at the young,” Carmichael writes. “Shame discourages people from seeking treatment, and it encourages them to lie about whether or not they’ve been exposed to Covid-19, making it harder to test and trace. If we don’t want people in their 20s going to bars, we should shut down bars — not reopen them and then yell at those who show up.”

Carmichael’s article touches on a cultural nerve: Do we actually care about lonely young people to the extent that we can offer them help?

It’s perhaps limiting to consider youthful loneliness through the prism of Covid-19 alone. In an assessment of American loneliness, beginning in February and ending in April, older adults reported less loneliness overall compared to younger adults, but all reported loneliness eventually burned off, leveling into a form of resilience.

If we remove the factor of Covid-19 from the conversation entirely, something salient emerges: Young people were already lonely.

According to May 2020 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, survey responses from 237 countries indicates that young people living in individualistic societies report feeling more lonely than older people living in collectivist societies. This data was collected prior to the pandemic as part of the BBC Loneliness Experiment.

Meanwhile, in the United States specifically, 3 out of 5 Americans are lonely. A January 2020 survey indicates that, within this Lonely Hearts Club, it is Gen Z adults — people who are between the age of 18 to 22 years old — who have the highest average loneliness score. The lowest score belonged to boomers.

Christina Victor, a professor of gerontology and public health at Brunel University London, tells me that, historically, loneliness has been incorrectly seen as a normal part of aging.

“This association between old age and loneliness meant that, with a few exceptions, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners did not actively consider that people who weren’t old could be lonely,” Victor says.

A number of recent surveys indicating that young adults actually report the highest prevalence of loneliness are somewhat changing that perception, Victor explains. What will be done with that information is less certain.

What it means to be lonely — There are a number of different types of loneliness, Victor says.

There’s social loneliness, which is broadly based on perceived deficits in social relationships; there is emotional loneliness, which is a loneliness that is a result of loss (this is often linked to bereavement); and there is existential loneliness. That form is the hardest to explain and perhaps the most personally felt — the profound, and sometimes philosophical, idea that others don’t care about your existence.

“We have little evidence as to how those types of loneliness are experienced across the life span, but we might hypothesize that young adults might be more prone to existential or social loneliness, and older adults to emotional,” Victor said.

Teasing out those differences is important because it’s thought that understanding is essential to creating interventions that actually work to combat loneliness across age groups.

Thanée Franssen is a statistical researcher affiliated with the University of Maastricht. She tells me that, for now, most interventions are universal; they focus on all adults without distinctions. Franssen is the lead author of a recent study that indicates this “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t likely to help. Instead, interventions should be tailored to age and life phase.

“This attention to loneliness may lead to a decrease in social stigma and shame regarding loneliness."

Franssen and her team used data collected in the Netherlands from September to December 2015 and examined loneliness experienced by 6,143 young adults, 8,418 middle-aged adults, and 11,758 late middle-aged adults. Here, loneliness was defined as “an unpleasant experience that occurs due to insufficient social relationships, either in terms of quantitatively and/or qualitatively.”

In this instance, the survey date actually indicated that the youngest group was the least lonely — 39.7 percent reported feelings of loneliness, compared to a respective 43 percent and 48.2 percent.

But their loneliness was also experienced differently: Young adults were the most likely to link their loneliness to contact frequency with friends, and were the only group to associate levels of educational attainment with a feeling of loneliness, with less-educated young adults feeling more lonely. Across all groups, feeling lonely was associated with deviating from what one perceived as the norm for their age group.

Franssen notes that when the team collected data in 2016, the frequency of loneliness among Dutch adults was 44.3 percent. It’s fair to say that, considering reported trends, that percentage has likely increased. She says that Covid-19 has also perhaps “alleviated levels of experienced loneliness in all age groups,” but something a bit less obvious could be happening, too. People might be becoming more comfortable with saying they are lonely.

“Loneliness has received a lot of attention and was covered extensively in the news over the last few months,” Franssen says. “This attention to loneliness may lead to a decrease in social stigma and shame regarding loneliness. Accordingly, people may talk more about their feelings of loneliness and may report loneliness more easily, which could also lead to higher reported levels of loneliness.”

What to do with loneliness — Franssen’s work raises questions about what’s going on in the United States: Are young American adults more lonely than the Dutch? Are they simply more comfortable expressing their loneliness? Is their loneliness different from the form asked about in the Dutch surveys — more existential and less social?

More research is needed to say for sure — along with more studies — that continue the new trend of considering the loneliness of the young. In the meantime, there are some actionable strategies young people can utilize to handle their loneliness.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, tells me that regular social connections and engagements — specifically positive, meaningful relationships — may be key to reducing loneliness.

“This can be easier said than done,” Holt-Lunstad notes. “Recognize potential barriers and find ways to overcome them.”

She also recommends:

  • Providing support to others: “Others are struggling, too. By providing support to others, it not only helps them, but it can strengthen social bonds and reduce your own loneliness.”
  • Express gratitude to others. This strengthens social bonds and reduces loneliness.
  • Try mindfulness-based meditation.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: “Seeking the help of a professional can help reduce repetitive negative thinking and reduce loneliness.”
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