Younger Generations are More Lonely

No one likes to feel lonely, but sadly, loneliness is an epidemic in the United States.

In May, 2018, Cigna, the global health service company, released the findings from their nationwide survey of more than 20,000 American adults ages 18 years and older about loneliness. They discovered:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
  • One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
  • Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations. Note that Generation Z is defined as individuals born between 1996-2010, but only adults ages 18-22 were included in the study.
  • Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) which is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7)

“What this comes down to 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.

The Health Risks of Loneliness

Everyone feels lonely sometimes, but when someone is chronically (or constantly) lonely, problems occur. Many studies have shown that frequent loneliness often leads to poor health. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and early mortality. Cigna’s survey reinforced this correlation. 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. In addition, loneliness can significantly impact a person’s mental health as well, causing stress, depression, suicide, antisocial behavior, or anxiety. We require social contact to thrive.

What Parents Can Do

Cigna’s survey is a warning to parents. Clearly, younger generations are feeling more isolated than older ones. Lonely teens may become lonely adults. They may have trouble making friends and feel sad, alienated and bored. These types of feelings lead to poor decision-making for teens, including using risky behaviors to escape their feelings. Here are some tips to help teens combat loneliness:

  1. Share Information

Many people who feel lonely think they are one of the only people who feels this way, which isolates them further. As the study results show, loneliness is very common. Sometimes when we understand that a lot of people feel the same way, we feel more confident in trying to connect with others. Share the survey results with your teen so that they can see they are not alone at all.

  1. Get Involved

Ironically, when we feel lonely, we have a tendency to want to withdraw, but that only makes the problem worse. Experts say the number one way to combat loneliness is to avoid isolating yourself. The Cigna survey showed that people who engage in frequent in-person interactions reported much lower loneliness scores than those who rarely interact face-to-face. As a result, parents should be supportive of teens hanging out with their friends, as long as they are meeting their other commitments to family and school.

Parents should encourage lonely teens to join an activity or group. Finding a club, sport, or activity that fits your interests and connects you with like-minded people is key! Churches, town sports leagues, the local youth orchestra and even an afterschool job can be good places for teens to make friends. When you find an activity you enjoy, it brings out the best in you and helps you meet people with whom you have something in common.

If you feel your teen is lonely, but you can’t find an activity you think is right for him or her, consider contacting your teen’s high school. Many high school teachers have passions that they like to share with their students. If your child has a specific interest or skill, ask around. There may be a small group of kids who have the same passion and a teacher who shares that interest.

  1. Monitor Social Media

The Cigna survey did not find a strong correlation between loneliness and social media; however, previous studies have found that heavy users of social media are more prone to depression and low self-esteem. As a parent, you should emphasize a healthy balance. Yes, your teen can use social media, but they should also spend time hanging out with friends, exercising, doing homework, and participating in extracurricular activities. It’s important that this young generation spends a little more time with people face-to-face and a little less time online.

  1. Adopt Healthy Habits

The Cigna survey showed that people who got the recommended amount of sleep for their age and who exercised regularly were considerably less lonely than those who didn’t. Remind your teen that their physical health actually has a huge impact on how they feel mentally.

  1. Volunteer

Helping others can be very beneficial for your teen. Serving the community helps teens to perform better in school, have higher self-esteem, develop new interests, and feel valued. It can also make your teen feel needed, and give him or her a sense of belonging. It has the added bonus of looking great on a resume or college application. Possibilities include animal shelters, soup kitchens, park clean-ups, churches, senior centers, hospitals, or local political offices and civic organizations.

  1. Prioritize Family Time

Families can definitely create a sense of belonging and offer a support network for each family member. In the Cigna survey, those who spent a lot of time with their family were more likely to feel as though they are part of a group of friends and they can find companionship when they need it. So, even if your teen rolls their eyes at you, make it a priority to reserve some time for fun activities as a family.

Final Thoughts….

Teens who are lonely may self-medicate by engaging in risky behaviors, such as taking drugs, drinking or becoming sexually promiscuous. If you see signs that your teen might be headed down a dangerous path or that they might be depressed, contact your pediatrician and ask for a recommendation for a mental health professional who can help.

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