The Facts About Loneliness in Young Adults

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Why is loneliness in young adults so prevalent today? Recent research shows that experiencing loneliness in your 20s is near the top of the list of challenges for both Generation Z and millennials. Despite all the latest communication technologies, many young people feel a growing sense of isolation.

Although society is more connected than ever before by social media and mobile devices, today’s young people lack the intimacy of face-to-face human interaction—what they call IRL (in real life). As a result, there is a heightened level of isolation and young adults are looking for an understanding of how to overcome loneliness and depression.

Ironically, research on the behavior of these plugged-in generations reveals that technology is a big part of the problem. Indeed, many researchers and mental health professionals believe that the ubiquitous nature of social media and the constant availability of online communication lie at the root of the issue. It seems that virtual connections are preventing more authentic IRL connections.

Why Am I Feeling Lonely and Depressed?

In seeking to answer this heartbreaking question, current statistics on loneliness and psychological insight into loneliness in your 20s provide perspective. Most important, loneliness in young adults leads to depression, which in turn leads to more loneliness. That’s because the symptoms of depression, such as low self-esteem and low energy, often prevent people from reaching out to others and engaging in social activities.

The late John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, founder of the field of social neuroscience, explains how loneliness in young adults feeds on itself:

Newport Institute crest
Newport Institute: Empowering Minds. Inspiring Lives.

Treatment

Depression

Anxiety

PTSD & Trauma

Bipolar Disorder

Adjustment Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Mood Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol Abuse

Substance Abuse

Opioid Abuse

Prescription Drug Abuse

Eating Disorders

“When you feel lonely, you get more defensive. Completely unbeknownst to you, your brain is focusing more on self-preservation than the preservation of those around you. This, in turn, can make you less pleasant to be around. Over time, this can increase the likelihood of negative social interactions. Thus, the focus on self-preservation can have short-term survival benefits but—if not reversed—can have long-term costs.”

The UCLA Loneliness Scale and Statistics on Loneliness

The UCLA Loneliness Scale is a widely used monitoring survey that has garnered valuable insight about how often a person feels disconnected from others using a 4-point rating scale. People who have higher scores on the UCLA Loneliness Scale tend to have more issues within their friendships and romantic relationships, suffer from physical inactivity, and a higher chance of employment problems, Further, a January 2020 CNBC article concluded that loneliness is on the rise and noted some recent statistics on loneliness.

  • 73 percent of Generation Z sometimes or always feel alone.
  • 71 percent of heavy social media users reported feelings of loneliness.

In addition, a 2020 Cigna study which surveyed 10,000 adults across the United States, also found that loneliness was at epidemic levels. Below are some of the statistics from the study.

  • 71 percent of millennials are lonely.
  • 50 percent of baby boomers are lonely.
  • 1 percent of men are feeling lonely compared to 45.3 percent of women.

When compared to previous generations like the baby boomers, Generation Z and millennials are the loneliest generations in today’s world. Consequently, loneliness can exacerbate or be a catalyst for depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

The Health Risks of Feeling Lonely and Depressed

Recent studies by several academic and professional institutions illustrate the dangers of loneliness in young adults. The health risks of loneliness include the following:

  1. A 2015 American Psychological Association study reveals that loneliness and social isolation increase the chances of premature death by up to 50 percent.
  2. The 2020 Cigna study reveals that half of the young people who rarely have real-life interactions are in fair to poor overall health.
  3. Loneliness leads to mental health challenges, like depression and anxiety.
  4. According to a 2019 study by the CDC, the suicide rate for Generation Z increased by more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2017.
  5. Health Resources and Services Administration researchers say that loneliness and social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Given such health risks, experts are working to better understand the causes of loneliness in these generations. Why do so many young people feel so lonely?

Causes of Loneliness in Generation Z and Millennials

According to a recent survey, young people report the following causes of loneliness:

  1. 53 percent say they are too shy and introverted to connect with others
  2. 27 percent say they don’t really feel like they need friends
  3. 26 percent say their hobbies or interests don’t facilitate friendships
  4. 20 percent say that friendships are too much work
  5. 19 percent say that the place they live has the wrong type of people
  6. 14 percent say they are too busy for friendships
  7. 11 percent say they recently moved and have had trouble finding new friends.

Young people don’t tend to cite digital overuse as a cause of loneliness, as they typically think of their phones and social media apps as ways to stay in touch. However, many researchers believe that a primary cause of loneliness might be the device that they are rarely without.

But social media and other digital activity aren’t the only culprits: Studies show that people today spend less time attending church, volunteering, being social at work, and getting together with neighbors. Moreover, families are smaller, meaning that young people have fewer siblings to help ward off loneliness.

three teens congregate in a school hallway, their backs to the camera as they start to walk together.

Loneliness in Young Adults and Social Media Factors

A young person might have thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and yet still experience painful isolation in real life. A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study states that there are greater feelings of loneliness among people who use social media more frequently. Thus, staring at their mobile devices rather than interacting with other human beings may increase loneliness in your 20s and beyond.

In addition, social media use increases FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), leaving young adults feeling even more isolated. As child psychologist Melissa Sporn told USA Today, “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.”

5 Ways to Reduce Loneliness and Depression

There are proven ways to reduce loneliness in your 20s. Here are a few strategies for young adults to try:

  • Limit social media use. A 2018 Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology article revealed that cutting down usage of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat led to “significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group.”
  • Spend time volunteering. Research shows that doing things for others offers mental and physical health benefits.
  • Cultivate authentic connections. Real-life friendships may need a bit more tending to than virtual ones, but the payoff will be worth it in terms of counteracting loneliness.
  • Get involved. Connect with others by doing things you enjoy. For example, take a dance or art class, join a hiking club, or get involved with a campaign for a cause you care about.
  • Visit a therapist. Working with a mental health professional can help young adults pinpoint causes of loneliness. Then they can begin making manageable lifestyle changes that will boost connection and thriving.
Newport Institute crest
Newport Institute: Empowering Minds. Inspiring Lives.

Treatment

Depression

Anxiety

PTSD & Trauma

Bipolar Disorder

Adjustment Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Mood Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol Abuse

Substance Abuse

Opioid Abuse

Prescription Drug Abuse

Eating Disorders

Sources:

Featured Image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
In-Article Image by Kobe Michael from Pexels