Investigating this generation's loneliness epidemic.
How many Facebook friends do you have? 200? 500? Over a thousand? Now ask yourself how many friends you have in real life. Do you have a gaggle of pals you could you call in a crisis? Can you count on more than one hand how many people would be there for you no matter what? Despite having follower counts into the thousands, millennials are more lonely than generations before. That’s the conclusion of not just one recent study, but several. Young Women’s Trust found that young people feel more lonely than those later in life, with one in four people aged between 18 and 30 saying they feel isolated.
In the same study, one in five said they felt lonely due to lack of close relationships. Meanwhile, the Intergenerational Foundation discovered that in the 10 years between 2005 and 2015, the quality of family relationships for millennials declined by 50%, while close friendships fell by 6%. The study concluded that our generation “may be becoming more socially isolated.” Perhaps most strikingly, another study from The Economist/KFF discovered that some 54% of people feel they have no one to turn to, while in Ireland, one in 10 people have been identified as affected by loneliness.
But why is it that we’re feeling so alone? The advent of social media means that a listening ear is only a message away. We need only shoot off a quick text on WhatsApp or reconnect with an old friend over DMs to debrief a disastrous day or share a giggle over something funny. When it comes to forging meaningful relationships, we have everyone we’ve ever met at our fingertips. We might not see them everyday but we can keep checking in with likes, comments and messages to keep the friendship ticking over. The internet has connected us to nearly every other single human being on the planet and placed them into the palm of our hand, and yet we feel more isolated than we ever have. All of us have endured periods of loneliness in our lives, sure, but experts are saying loneliness is becoming less a passing phase, and more a pervasive social epidemic. So what gives?
The generation before us might believe that millennials have never had it so good, but really we’ve had a lot to contend with. We grew up post-recession in an age when affordable housing and job opportunities were limited and for many of us that meant moving elsewhere and starting afresh, with few contacts or friendships. As a generation, we move around more – it’s not simply a case of continuing life in the community you grew up in where you are likely to have an in-built support network. Lots of us are moving to bigger cities for career opportunities or jetting off to travel, meaning that inevitably we have a lot of settling in phases to go through where we need to make new friends, all while grappling with a social media landscape where everyone appears to be having the time of their lives.
But what about those of us who are settled but still feel lonely? Deirdre Madden, psychotherapist and counsellor at Mind Body Works puts it down to something she calls ‘the digital barrier’. She reasons that these days we’re connecting on a virtual level and not-so much a human one, and because our minds are bombarded by information and emails we have little left in the tank for real human connection. (I can’t help but think that social media has also impacted our ability to connect in a more literal way too. Ask yourself this, how often have you met up with friends and spent the majority of the time scrolling on your phone while only half-heartedly engaging in conversation? Perhaps the abundance of online connection has made us not just too exhausted to foster real life connections, but lazy too.)
The thing is, social media can’t replicate the feelings of connection we get from real life bonding. In fact, Deirdre points out that it can actually exacerbate feelings of loneliness.
“The world of social media tends to be idealised and people generally only share the good stuff which can magnify our feelings of loneliness and isolation when we are being constantly fed only the good. This can set up feelings of comparing and failing in some way when our lives don’t seemingly match up to the curated images on screen.”
It makes sense. How often have you felt like you’re missing out after a quick scroll on Instagram or convinced yourself you’re the only one without a solid group of gal pals to hang out with? Trouble is, we have a deep need for human connection, so much so that it’s actually wired into our DNA and is as strong as our primitive need for food, water and warmth. Without it, we experience both emotional and physical hurts, something which John T. Cacioppo, who dedicated his life to studying loneliness writes about extensively.
In his book Loneliness, he explains, “the pain of loneliness is a disruptive hurt. The disruption both physiological and behavioural, can turn an unmet need for connection into a chronic condition. The data tells us that loneliness seriously accelerates age-related declines in health and well-being.”
If you’ve ever experienced the sting of heartbreak or the anguish of falling out with a friend, it’s the same deal. We need social inclusion, connection and friendship in order to function. So what can be done to find your way back to connection and beat those lonely blues?
Deirdre says it requires making a conscious U-turn, diverting your energy away from the phone and towards cultivating relationships and friendships in the real world. That, she says, requires being pro-active by taking action steps to connect with others, by making plans or even reaching out via text if needs be. Doing an assessment of how you spend your time can help too. Deirdre advises:
“Make an effort to use your time in more nourishing ways. Our phones are so accessible and may provide some form of temporary contact but consider how you could invest your screen-time in a healthier way with a higher return.”
Deirdre’s final suggestion is to start small. “Text a friend or make a phone call and maybe try to plan one social outing per week,” she suggests. “Connecting might be about joining a class and trying something new so it encourages you to step out of the ‘phone swamp’ and get out there. Our habits become us. It’s about trying to stay balanced and create more fulfilling habits to connect. ink quality over quantity.”
If the stats prove anything it’s that you’re not alone in feeling lonely, so reach out. There’s somebody out there craving connection just as much as you are.