Young people are often surrounded by their peers, but feel all alone. A Harvard survey reported half of young adults felt days went by before anyone asked how they were actually doing or strove to make an authentic connection.
Despite being more social and more plugged-in than other age group, emerging adults are the loneliest generation. Loneliness peaks between the ages of 18 and 29, according to a new research review. And feeling lonely increases the risk of mental health conditions—creating an epidemic of depression in young adults.
Loneliness is defined as a mismatch between one’s desired and actual social relationships, between how connected we want to be and how connected we really are. Young adults crave that sense of belonging and connection with others. When their reality falls short, it can be devastating. Loneliness is almost certainly contributing to the high rates of mental health issues among this demographic.
Research On Young Adulthood Loneliness
Loneliness and depression in young adults has been on the rise for generations, and reached its highest point during the pandemic. A meta-analysis tracked data from 345 studies using the UCLA Loneliness Scale. The data, from 125,000 participants in total, showed that each successive young adult generation is lonelier than the one before. A 2023 Gallup poll found that 1 in every 4 young adults feels lonely “a lot of the day.”
Why Are The Young So Lonely?
At this stage of life, young people need more social interaction in order to feel a sense of well-being. Typically, they haven’t yet developed the sense of self and inner confidence that allows them to feel comfortable being alone. Moreover, they need ongoing peer interaction in order to build their identity, strengthen their relationship skills, and help them feel as if they belong.
The Anxiety Caused By Devices
Young people typically think of their phones and social media apps as approaches for coping with loneliness. Paradoxically, however, many researchers believe that technology is actually a primary cause of loneliness. DM-ing and commenting are replacing more authentic and satisfying face-to-face human interaction. Virtual connection is more like virtual isolation. Their brains become so cluttered by the constant overstimulation and bombardment of posts flaunting other peoples happiness that it struggles to parse out truth from fiction. Self-worth can suffer, leading to heightened levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
Moreover, social media use increases FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Scrolling through images of their peers having a great time with friends leaves young adults feeling even more isolated and alone. Trying to present themselves in a perfect light can leave them feeling disconnected from their true self, as well as from other people.
As the number of social interactions that occur on social networking sites has exploded, the online world has become its own social universe, especially for young adults. How many “friends,” “followers,” or “likes” you have is visible for all to see. TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram overwhelm people with images of others’ exotic vacations, impressive accomplishments, picture-perfect bodies (often digitally manipulated with filters), and happy relationships. These apps are highlight reels of other people’s lives. And they can cause many people—especially the young—to question their own lives and choices, damaging their self-confidence and well-being, making them feel very much alone and unable to "compete."
That's not all. In a study of 1,051 young adults between 18 and 27 years old, social media addiction had a significant negative association with executive functioning skills such as planning, organization, problem-solving, decision-making, and working memory. Another good reason to find time to disconnect from your device.
Escaping The Comparison Trap
It’s natural to compare yourself to others. It’s part of how we define and understand ourselves. But while everyone plays the comparison game to some extent, young adults are more susceptible. They compare themselves to others in all kinds of ways: grade point averages, job titles, income, physical appearance, dating success, parties attended, number of Instagram followers … the list goes on. While the tendency to be in comparison mode often comes out of insecurity and low self-esteem, it also makes those feelings worse. Thus, the more you compare, the more you perpetuate a vicious cycle. Engaging in relentless social comparisons is guaranteed to lower feelings of self-worth and self-acceptance.
Not surprisingly, people who engage in social comparison on a regular basis are more likely to feel discouraged and depressed, leading to loneliness. Constantly comparing ourselves to others guarantees we’ll fall short. There will always be someone who’s smarter, richer, more popular, and better looking. Breaking out of the comparison trap is one of the healthiest things a young person can do to avoid loneliness.
Can Loneliness Cause Depression?
Ever caught yourself wondering, “Am I lonely or depressed?” The difference between loneliness vs. depression can be hard to pinpoint. Just as alone and lonely aren’t necessarily the same thing, feeling lonely doesn’t necessarily lead to depressive symptoms. But can loneliness cause depression? Yes, if other risk factors are part of the equation.
Young adulthood loneliness can exacerbate or be a catalyst for depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse. Research shows the anxiety of being alone too much can escalate into an anxiety disorder or contribute to depression.
A 2023 Gallup poll found that one-third of those who reported being lonely were currently being treated for depression or had been treated for depression in the past. That’s nearly triple the level found among survey respondents who did not experience loneliness.
Moreover, the interplay of loneliness and depression in young adults can set off a vicious cycle. While loneliness can trigger depression, mental health issues in turn can create higher levels of loneliness. That’s because the symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as low self-esteem and low energy, often caused by falling into the comparison trap, prevent people from reaching out to others and engaging in social activities.
Signs of Chronic Loneliness
Everyone feels lonely now and then. It’s almost impossible for one’s desire for connection to perfectly match up to what’s available, all the time. However, if you find yourself dealing with loneliness frequently, it may be a chronic condition—which heightens the risk of depression.
The symptoms of chronic loneliness include:
· Difficulty connecting with others in a deep and authentic way
· Knowing lots of people but not having close friends or a best friend
· Feelings that no one really “gets” you or understands what you’re going through
· Anxiety, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating
· A sense of being alone and lonely even in the midst of people, at a party or other social event
· Self-doubt and lack of self-worth
· Feeling that others don’t reciprocate when you try to connect
· Insomnia or other sleep problems
· Sense of fatigue and languishing that keep you from engaging in social activities
· Self-destructive habits, including drinking too much or abusing drugs
Strategies for Coping with Loneliness
There are ways to feel less lonely—when you’re alone as well as with others. Your first instinct may be to pick up your phone to connect with others. Instead, make an effort to socialize with people in the real world. Developing and nourishing authentic connections with supportive friends, family, and colleagues in person lowers stress and provides a deeper sense of belonging. Young adults had the lowest levels of depressive symptoms when they enjoyed more offline emotional support. Meaningful real-life friendships may need a bit more tending than virtual ones, but the payoff will be worth it in terms of counteracting loneliness. Strong friendships are proven to reduce loneliness and depression in young adults.
Courtesy of Newport Healthcare