Grow­ing Lone­li­ness Among Gen-X

A BBC Sur­vey shows 16 to 24 year olds are the loneli­est. But, is it so­cial me­dia’s fault

The Day After - - FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK - By DANFES Feed­back on:re­porter@dayaf­

Young peo­ple are lone­lier than all other age groups, ac­cord­ing to re­cent find­ings from the BBC Lone­li­ness Ex­per­i­ment. In a sur­vey of more than 55,000 peo­ple, 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds re­ported feel­ing lonely of­ten or very of­ten. This trend for high youth lone­li­ness has also been cap­tured in other na­tional sur­veys by the Of­fice for Na­tional Statis­tics in 2017 and the Eden Project in 2015.

Lone­li­ness is typ­i­cally associated with older gen­er­a­tions, who may live alone or be less ca­pa­ble of get­ting out and about. But young peo­ple can ex­pe­ri­ence lone­li­ness de­spite hav­ing friends, be­ing sur­rounded by peo­ple at school or hav­ing sup­port­ive par­ents. This in­di­cates that youth lone­li­ness is more about find­ing it dif­fi­cult to con­nect with other peo­ple, as op­posed to be­ing alone.

There are more op­por­tu­ni­ties to­day to con­nect with oth­ers than ever be­fore: so­cial me­dia, in­stant messaging and even on­line gam­ing all al­low peo­ple to share mes­sages and ex­pe­ri­ences with­out be­ing in the same place at the same time. But re­search has shown that high use of the in­ter­net is linked to lone­li­ness, so­cial anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. Young peo­ple are the high­est users of so­cial me­dia, and some have raised con­cerns about the im­pact that might be hav­ing on their men­tal health.

For in­stance, in her book Alone To­gether, MIT psy­chol­o­gist Sherry Turkle has ar­gued that peo­ple are begin­ning to favour com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­ers us­ing new tech­nolo­gies over speak­ing face to face. She ar­gues that on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion lacks in­ti­macy, and though we might feel we are con­stantly con­nected or in the loop, it ac­tu­ally leaves us feel­ing alone.


When my col­leagues at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago and I con­ducted a re­view of the re­search link­ing lone­li­ness to in­ter­net use, we found that us­ing the in­ter­net so­cially

can lead to both in­creases and de­creases in lone­li­ness – de­pend­ing on how it is used.

When so­cial tech­nolo­gies are used to con­nect with peo­ple and main­tain ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ships, they can re­duce lone­li­ness. But when in­ter­net use re­places off­line in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers, it can in­crease feel­ings of lone­li­ness. To fully un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lone­li­ness and so­cial me­dia, it’s im­por­tant to be aware of how peo­ple be­have when they are lonely.

The BBC Lone­li­ness Study found that 41% of peo­ple felt that lone­li­ness can some­times be a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Pe­ri­ods of time spent alone can be im­por­tant to pro­mote self-care, re­flec­tion and cre­ativ­ity. In another re­view, my col­leagues and I ar­gue that lone­li­ness is an im­por­tant and useful feel­ing, be­cause it lets us know when we lack so­cial sup­port and prompts us to re­con­nect with oth­ers.

But prob­lems arise when our at­tempts to reach out to oth­ers are un­suc­cess­ful, and this is when lone­li­ness is linked to poor men­tal and phys­i­cal health. When peo­ple are lonely, it means they will seek ways to avoid be­ing re­jected or fur­ther iso­lated by oth­ers. This leads peo­ple to be par­tic­u­larly tuned into neg­a­tive be­hav­iours; for ex­am­ple, they will be more likely to no­tice feel­ings of anger and frus­tra­tion in other peo­ple’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

This fo­cus on neg­a­tive as­pects of so­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion can cause lonely peo­ple to re­main quiet and re­served dur­ing so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. And if they re­main lonely for a long pe­riod, they might avoid so­cial gath­er­ings al­to­gether. These be­hav­iours make lonely peo­ple more vul­ner­a­ble when they use so­cial tech­nolo­gies, be­cause they are more likely to fo­cus on neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion on­line, view con­tent rather than share, and gen­er­ally use so­cial me­dia in ways that con­tinue to make them feel lonely – or make those feel­ings even worse.


The BBC Lone­li­ness Study showed that lonely peo­ple have more friend­ships that are on­line only, in­di­cat­ing that they may go on­line to feel con­nected and may avoid face to face in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple. But re­search sug­gests that this is not al­ways the case; some peo­ple may spend time on­line to com­mu­ni­cate with fam­ily or friends who live too far away to meet up in per­son.

Young peo­ple who al­ready feel lonely, are so­cially anx­ious, or have dif­fi­cul­ties main­tain­ing friend­ships are less likely to use so­cial me­dia in a pos­i­tive and mean­ing­ful way. They may need sup­port to change that, but it is pos­si­ble to start by ac­tively en­gag­ing with other peo­ple on­line, and avoid­ing spend­ing too much time pas­sively read­ing sta­tus up­dates or watch­ing YouTube videos.

Of course, spend­ing long pe­ri­ods on­line with­out in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers can ag­gra­vate feel­ings of lone­li­ness. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­ers face-to-face is im­por­tant, and ev­ery­one needs to make time for that. But we can­not blame so­cial me­dia for high lev­els of lone­li­ness among young peo­ple, be­cause smart phones and so­cial me­dia can be used in ways that al­low us to feel con­nected with oth­ers, make new friends and share our ex­pe­ri­ences. Young peo­ple who feel lonely can ad­dress this prob­lem by chang­ing the way they use so­cial me­dia, so that it sup­ple­ments the time they spend with oth­ers – rather than re­plac­ing it. The Con­ver­sa­tion

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