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Loneliness has reached “epidemic” levels in recent years. The issue is especially pronounced in younger generations. In a recent study, 30 percent of U.S. millennials said they always or often feel lonely and 22 percent said they have “no friends.” Loneliness may be even more pervasive among members of Gen Z.
It’s not just an American problem. In Japan, as many as half a million people live in social isolation. One in five Canadians identifies as lonely. The British government recently appointed a minister for loneliness to combat the issue.
The toll that loneliness takes goes beyond just emotional well-being. It is associated with higher blood pressure and heart disease. Loneliness has been shown to have a health impact similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has also been seen as a possible cause of antisocial behavior and even, by some, as a factor in mass shootings.
Why there’s debate:
The individual causes of something as personal as loneliness are inherently difficult to identify and likely vary from person to person. Social media is frequently pointed to as a major factor. Young people — who spend much more time communicating digitally than older generations — are missing out on valuable in-person interactions, many argue. Some believe that the curated versions of ourselves that we put online make it difficult to create real connections with others.
The influence of social media may be overstated, others argue. Loneliness among millennials and Gen Z may be driven by personal and societal challenges that are more pronounced in their generations, such as economic pressures, workplace changes and difficulty starting a family.
A number of remedies for the loneliness epidemic have been proposed. Some have argued for redesigning cities in ways that promote social interaction. A variety of innovations — co-working spaces, friend-finder apps, digital pets and even a loneliness pill — have been launched in an effort to curb the problem.
Young people don’t learn how to be alone
“They’ve been surrounded by conversation their whole lives, so when that silence happens, they have a hard time just being in it and they take it that there’s something wrong.” — University of Delaware professor Dawn Fallik to NBC News
More and more people are living by themselves
“Worldwide, up until the 1960s, single-person households were exceedingly rare. But over the past 50 years, the share of U.S. households consisting of one person has more than doubled.” — Neil Howe, Forbes
Young people face unprecedented barriers to starting families
“In addition to having done almost everything we can to make raising a family unaffordable in this country, we have tried our very hardest to make the prospect seem horrifying.” — Matthew Walther, Week
Social media causes feelings of isolation and inadequacy
“Online activities hits us twice, once as a distraction and/or substitution for real social interaction and then again as a representation via social media of all the things we aren’t doing and should be engaged in thus leaving us feeling lonely and [fear of missing out].” — Child psychologist Melissa Sporn to USA Today
Young people are up against challenges older generations never faced
“While it is now fashionable to refer to this cohort of college and university students as a coddled generation of ‘snowflakes,’ the reality is they face unprecedented challenges and circumstances.” — Varun Soni, Los Angeles Times
The ability to focus on in-person interaction is becoming a luxury reserved for the wealthy
“Just as skipping fast food is harder when it’s the only restaurant offering in town, separating from screens is harder for the poor and middle class. Even if someone is determined to be offline, that is often not possible.” — Nellie Bowles, New York Times
Economic pressures undercut young people’s ability to create deep connections
“We’re moving across the country, ripping ourselves away from social networks that can take years to construct. We’re delaying marriage and kids, or skipping them entirely. We’re working all the time, often alone, outside the confines of a traditional office and without the camaraderie of coworkers.” — Laura Entis, Vox
The issue is too complex to point to one cause
“As with most problems of noticeable impact and size, contemporary isolation arises from a structure of root causes — pervasive individualism, the dislocation effects of school and work, the fraying of communities — which is greater and more persistent than the hopeful efforts of scattered individuals.” — Elizabeth Bruenig, Washington Post
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