Studies describe a current “epidemic of loneliness,” the impact of social media on relationships
Studies show that the U.S. is currently experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Approximately two in five Americans have reported feeling that their relationships are “sometimes or always not meaningful,” and one in five reported feeling socially isolated or lonely, according to an article by the Health Resources and Services Administration. These feelings may be compounded by a decline in household size and more people living alone than before, the study noted.
This issue can cause adverse health effects, with some researchers concluding that it’s as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem isn’t limited to Americans, either — the U.K. appointed a Minister of Loneliness in 2018.
“Loneliness is not necessarily having few friends,” said Cynthia Pickett, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology. “The idea is that people crave and need deeper social relationships.“
Pickett believes this lack of meaningful social interactions may be due to changes in the way we communicate as a society.
“When you have a face-to-face interaction, you get more [social] information from that interaction,” Pickett said. “And when people are communicating over social media or text, those are fairly impoverished forms of communication — they’re fleeting.”
Pickett identified loneliness as different from forms of depression because it is intrinsically tied to “awareness of one’s social standing.” She added that there may be people who are lonely but not depressed, or depressed but not lonely. The two can, however, coincide.
“Loneliness can lead people to feel like they’re not socially valued, which can lead to a drop in self-esteem,” she explained.
According to Pickett’s research, loneliness can also lead to a heightened awareness of social cues in situations with other people.
“My research was looking specifically into the cognitive changes that occur when people are lonely,” Pickett said. “People become more attuned to social information in their environments — they’re better at decoding facial expressions, they’re better at decoding social activities than non-social activities. To form those social connections, you have to have those social skills.”
A recent study by Cigna, a global health service company, said that people from Generation Z — composed of individuals between the ages of 18 and 22 — make up the loneliest generation. Members of Gen Z also claim to be in worse health than their older counterparts. But the study didn’t find great differences in loneliness based on whether the person used social media frequently or not.
Instead, a growing scarcity of neighborhood communities, family fragmentation and a decline in religious affiliation has led young people to feel lonely, according to an op-ed published in USA Today. People who are employed are also not as lonely as students or the unemployed, said CNBC, and exercise and sleep might also play a role in these feelings.
A third-year political science and human development double major anonymously spoke to The California Aggie about their experiences with this phenomenon, both before and during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think [this loneliness stems from] an understanding of what it means to have meaningful relationships,” they said. “When I think about my parents or older people, they find value in knowing someone […] just as acquaintances. Their relationships seem not easier, but less substantive.”
People their age might be more inclined to categorize their friends, they explained.
“For Gen Z, it’s more of a matter of saying, ‘These are my friends, these are my best friends,’” they said. “We don’t necessarily reach out to everyone, we have certain categories of friendship.”
And sometimes, fear of burdening others prevents individuals from connecting.
“I think it also goes into the concept of awareness of other things — mental health, how dumping your thoughts on someone can be hard on someone,” they said. “You want to be sure to trust the person [that you’re talking to]. Just knowing that someone might not be on your side, might not like you venting to them.”
Describing a recent volleyball injury that prevented them from going out during Winter Quarter, they said they were unsure whether they could rely on friends to sacrifice finals studying to spend time with them. Volleyball was a big part of their identity, they said, and the injury changed them completely.
Although their health improved, they have been unable to go home during the shelter-in-place orders, and staying in Davis, without their roommates, was the “only thing that was feasible.”
“I’m from SoCal and my parents are older, and I was scared for them,” they said. “Since the whole thing started, they’ve been staying indoors. I was afraid I was one of those people who was asymptomatic and [could give it to them].”
Another interviewee, a third-year communications major who also wanted to remain anonymous, said she hoped college would be different than her high school experience, when she was largely preoccupied with academics and extracurriculars and didn’t always have the time to build sustainable relationships with people.
“I would give up on potential friends and friendships because it was a one-way street and just me reaching out,” she said. The shelter-in-place orders during the current pandemic have affected this too.
“Right now, with COVID-19, it’s putting relationships and friendships to the test — who are you really going to talk to when you’re not seeing one another?” she asked. “Who do you invest more time in — somebody you think is going to be there in the long run or the one who isn’t? It’s hard to understand, it depends on the person’s interests and maybe not being lazy at the same time.”
While she clarified that she didn’t think Generation Z is necessarily lazier, she noted that the availability of FaceTime sometimes eliminates the need to talk to people face-to-face.
When it comes to social media sites like Facebook, things can get confusing.
“It hurts with the loneliness a little bit because you see people liking your pictures and commenting, but they haven’t reached out to you in months or maybe even years,” she said. “It’s not efficient communication.”
On the other hand, she explained, Zoom has helped her connect with friends during the current shelter-in-place conditions. She said they spent two hours talking and reconnecting by playing an online game together.
According to Pickett, social media creates “pluralistic ignorance,” defined as the belief that one is different from one’s peers despite behaving the same as they do.
“In order to decide that your social interactions are lacking, we compare ourselves to other people,” she said. “By comparison, people feel like their social relationships are lacking. It leads people to think they’re lacking those activities or friends. Social media creates pluralistic ignorance around social relationships and leads people to feel lonely even if the quality of their relationships are fine.”
Despite these difficulties, the political science and human development major said, the epidemic has given them a new perspective.
“We’re coherent enough [to see] where things affect our adult lives and our adult futures,” they said, adding that before, during instances like the 2008 recession, the effects were not experienced directly. “You were there and you experienced the effects, but you didn’t have to deal with it, [your parents did]. But now people are figuring out what it means to be lonely, not to have enough money and not to have enough people in your life to help you turn things around.”
Now, ordinary activities, like going to a coffee shop, seem like a luxury, they noted. The pandemic has also given them insight into the quality of their relationships, including those in their family.
“Even though people kind of hate spending so much time with their families, they’ll have a different perspective on what family means,” they said. “I come from an immigrant family and there are a lot of memes about that — like, your mom being disrespectful when you’re on Zoom — but I’d love to be with my family right now. It’ll give you a fresh perspective on what and who is important in your life.”
The anonymous communications major has also had a similar realization.
“I definitely think the pandemic has shown me who my real friends are and who are the ones who are going to try to reach out to me,” she said. “It’s going to make me appreciate so much more going out with friends. A year from now, it might make us think twice about cancelling plans just because we’re so lazy.”
Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — firstname.lastname@example.org