Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat—these are just a few of the social media sites that keep us connected in this modern age. As technology continues to develop at an astounding rate, people are being offered more and more ways to connect with each other, and yet research indicates that we might be more disconnected than ever. In a study released earlier this year, health insurer Cigna discovered that the overall national loneliness score indicates about half of Americans are lonely. Even more alarming than this statistic, however, is the finding that members of generation Z (ages 18-22) are the loneliest, surpassing even the elderly.
…research shows that those who use social media platforms heavily have very little difference in their loneliness scores compared to those who never use them. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you have thousands of friends and followers online. What matters is what kinds of friends you have and if you can count on them to be there for you in real life.
Why does this matter? Well, as anyone who has ever felt lonely before can tell you, loneliness can have a profound impact on one’s mental health. Those who are lonely might feel that no one understands or appreciates them. They might also feel left out and isolated. Similarly, lonely people might feel that they lack meaningful relationships and that there is no one that they can talk to. In other words, loneliness creates an emotional state in youth that puts them at a greater risk of developing low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
Loneliness, however, does not just affect one’s mental health; it also has a strong impact on one’s physical health. According to Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general, loneliness causes stress that can trigger a biological response, leading to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and other health problems. In addition, Cigna notes that the biological stress caused by loneliness has the same life-shortening effect as the negative health consequences caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day. To give some added perspective, the mortality rate of loneliness actually makes it more dangerous to one’s health than obesity.
So how do we fix this problem? While some youth may seek to create a false sense of connection through social media, chatrooms, and online gaming, research shows that those who use social media platforms heavily have very little difference in their loneliness scores compared to those who never use them. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you have thousands of friends and followers online. What matters is what kinds of friends you have and if you can count on them to be there for you in real life. As the Cigna study clearly indicates, the key to solving loneliness is having meaningful social interactions and that requires face-to-face conversations.
So this fall, set aside some time to unplug and take advantage of all that the season has to offer. Whether it is apple picking, trick or treating, carving pumpkins, getting lost in corn mazes or jumping into piles of leaves, there are so many great activities to do with someone else. Be intentional about reaching out to others; and if you are lonely, finds ways to connect with someone else. After all, they might just be lonely too.
Author: Emily Thompson is an AmeriCorps member serving as a Prevention Specialist at Cortland Prevention Resources, a division of Family Counseling Services.