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Americans are lonelier than ever — but 'Gen Z' may be the loneliest

Gen Z or iGen, the youngest generation of adults, report feeling more lonely than previous generations. Here's how parents can help the next one.
Image: Teenagers
Adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 who spent more time on social media and smartphones were also more likely to report mental health / Shutterstock

Who here likes to feel lonely? Likely no one. Yet after some 20,000 people participated in a new nationwide survey published by Cigna, a global health service company, Americans are lonelier than ever, with almost 50 percent of those surveyed feeling left out or lonely.

Using the UCLA Loneliness Scale to compile scores, those who scored above a 43 were officially lonely, on a scale of 20 to 80. An astonishing 43 percent (that’s 2 in in 5) Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful, and that they are isolated from others. And 27 percent of Americans (that’s one in four) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.

“What this comes down is that we, as a society, are experiencing a lack of connection,” says Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna.

Most alarming: Loneliness scores rose among the generations, with the youngest generation, Gen Z or the iGen, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, scoring a 48.3 overall, as opposed to Millennials, who scored a 45.3., Gen X, who scored an also dismal 45.1 and Baby Boomers, who scored a 42.4. Those of grandparenting or great-grandparenting age, the Greatest Generation, were the least lonely, with a score of 38.6.

Sadly, it seems the younger you are, the lonelier you feel. “While we know that this is a group that’s coming of age and making life transitions, these findings give us a clear and surprising picture of how this generation perceives themselves,” says Nemecek. “It’s important that the communities these young people are a part of take note and explore solutions. It’s critical that they’re have spaces where young people can connect face-to-face to form meaningful relationships.”

The health risks of loneliness

Science has long shown a direct correlation between loneliness and poor health, and the survey illustrates this pretty well. Half of respondents who rarely have in-person interactions are in fair/poor overall health, while just 12 percent of those who have daily in-person interactions are in fair/poor overall health. Half of those who rarely have in-person interactions also say they’re in fair/poor physical health (52 percent vs. 23 percent of those who are socially active) and mental health (51 percent vs. 12 percent). What’s more, people who rarely have in-person interactions are also less likely to lead healthfully balanced lives, getting less sleep and spending less time with family, than those who are socially active.

“Research has found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” says Nemecek. Indeed, loneliness and social isolation has been linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. A 2015 study even links loneliness and social isolation with early mortality.

Research has found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.

Young loneliness isn’t just a stateside phenomenon: Early this year, the UK-based Office of National Statistics found the proportion of children aged 10 to 15 years reporting high or very high happiness with friends fell significantly from 85.8 percent in 2015 to 80.5 percent in 2017. In response, the government announced an initiative dedicated to helping young people cope.

Is social media the culprit?

It’s always tough to be a teen and today’s plugged-in teens have a whole new set of issues that can stem from social media overuse. A very recent study, published by Clinical Psychological Science, revealed that adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 who spent more time on social media and smartphones were also more likely to report mental health issues, as opposed to teens who spent more time hanging out with friends, exercising, doing homework, reading print media and attending religious services.

“iGen spends less time with their friends face-to-face and more time online and on social media,” confirms Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood." “As we know from decades of research, people who interact with others face-to-face are less likely to be lonely. Recent research suggests that those who spend more time on social media, in contrast, are more likely to be lonely.”

Though this makes complete sense — studies do show avid Facebook users are prone to depression and low self-esteem — the Cigna survey states that social media isn’t entirely to blame. Very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score of 43.5, which isn’t that far off from the score of lonely people who never use social media (41.7). So social media itself may not be to blame.

What parents can do

Twenge says parents can help their teens along by shifting their thinking a little. “Teens hanging out with their friends are not wasting their time,” she says. “Encourage them to get together with their friends face-to-face — and to put away their phones while doing it. Also, if you're struggling to limit your teen's phone time, parental control apps (such as Circle, Kidslox or OurPact) can set limits on use,” she says.

Parents can also help their teens by focusing on these healthy behaviors:

  • Sleep. Balanced sleepers (not too much, not too little) have lower loneliness scores, falling four points behind those who sleep less than desired and 7.3 points behind those who sleep more than desired.
  • Balancing family with friend time. Those who reported spending too much time with family were also more likely than those who don’t to say that they feel as though they are part of a group of friends, and they can find companionship when they need it.
  • Exercise. People who say they get just the right amount of exercise are considerably less likely to be lonely.
  • Of all the things parents can encourage to help teens avoid loneliness, hanging out with friends seems to be the most important. “When people have regular, meaningful in-person interactions, they’re both less likely to be lonely and more likely to say they’re in better health,” says Nemecek. “If everyone can take the simple, but important step of reaching out to someone else, that would make this entire study worthwhile.”

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