In a world of abundant technology and social media, we might assume that youth feel most connected. The reality is that loneliness is most prevalent among youth and young adults due to factors such as changes in family structure, social isolation, low self-esteem or gender differences. But with everything so convenient and automated nowadays, how could this possibly be?
We continue to learn about loneliness in youth and young adults, and science unlocks more insights each day. Read on to learn how youth experience loneliness and how to reduce these feelings.
How loneliness impacts transitional-age youth
Loneliness hits today’s youth especially hard, given the “always-on” ways they live. In fact, in 2018, nearly twice as many adolescents experienced loneliness compared to 2012. Since the onset of the 2010s, loneliness, depression and self-harm have increased sharply, especially among girls. But why?
The way adolescents use technology contributes to loneliness
Early iPhones and other devices emerged a few years prior, but 2012 was the first year most Americans had a smartphone. Pair this with the fact that today’s adolescents began using social media the most around the same time, and you get a whirlwind of tech use.
We know how valuable technology can be, from the basics of checking emails to managing work, life and play. But youth become absorbed by it. By living their lives through social media — which is often not reflective of real life and filled with photoshopped images — they feel inadequate because of what they see and because of cyberbullying.
Just because youth are always connected online, doesn’t mean they’re meeting their social needs. In reality, they are missing the intimacy of face-to-face interaction, preventing authentic real-life connections.
Fear of rejection causes both loneliness and isolation
We’ve all been in situations where we can’t help but think: “What if they don’t like me?” For youth who fear social rejection, it feels safer to be distant from others. They go into fight-or-flight mode and begin to see others as threatening. And it’s a vicious cycle: Avoiding social contact due to fear of rejection leads to further isolation, loneliness and low self-esteem.
No one wants to feel left out — and it could even have physical consequences. A University of Michigan study even suggests that social rejection activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
Loneliness impacts life satisfaction and overall health
One is the loneliest number, and lonely youth feel the impact in many ways. From a negative mood to overall poorer health, loneliness can influence youth from many angles. As a result, they’re more likely to experience depression, be less productive at school and in their first jobs and disproportionately engage in their health care to deal with the symptoms.
Loneliness in youth can impact their health in substantial ways. Left untreated, it can become more detrimental than obesity, smoking or high blood pressure and contribute to problems such as:
- Less restful and restorative sleep
- Greater risk of suicide
- More alcohol and drug use
Ways to reduce loneliness among youth
Youth and young adults don’t have to suffer in silence. Today’s youth have several methods for alleviating their feelings of loneliness. Let’s look at just a few:
Volunteering is good for the soul. Studies show that youth and adults alike can gain mental and physical health benefits from volunteering. This is especially true when the work is altruistic as opposed to self-fulfilling. This is likely because selflessness and acts of giving release oxytocin — the “love hormone” — resulting in feelings of attachment and trust.
Getting a pet
We’ve all heard that pets make you live longer or that their companionship enhances health in senior citizens. That said, it’s not only older adults who can benefit from this connection. Research shows that animals improve emotional health for people young and old.
For youth, having a pet teaches responsibility and provides feelings of connection. Treasured pets can’t let you down, providing unconditional love and being forever dependable. This was certainly true during the lockdown period of the pandemic, as 90% of people said their pet helped them cope emotionally.
Even if adopting an animal isn’t an option, there are still ways to take advantage of the benefits animals provide. Volunteering at a local shelter, animal sanctuary or animal hospital can allow for a connection with animals.
Joining group activities
Encouraging youth to 'unplug' is essential to reducing loneliness. By reducing solitary activities like spending time on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram and opting for in-person activities, youth can get out and interact with others. Some may prefer mission-focused activities connected to religion, politics or some other cause because it makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger. Being physically active can also help. One study found that physical activities with friends, teams or as part of a club increase feelings of connectedness.
Attending therapy or self-reflecting
Sometimes young people need to step back and think about the possible reasons for their loneliness. Does it have to do with personal loss, social aspects or self-esteem? Youth are in the discovery phase of their lives, trying to understand themselves as much as the world around them, so it might not be so easy to nail down — and that’s OK.
If the cause isn’t obvious, therapy can help identify the factors at play and find ways to overcome them. Shifting distorted thinking and perceptions can be supported with professional help. Though it's harder for youth in comparison to adults as they are still learning to recognize that thoughts aren’t facts. By pinpointing negative thoughts (e.g., “No one likes me”), they can work with a therapist to understand and overcome those challenging thoughts. Alternatively, youth Medicaid members can connect with their behavioral health plan benefits to discover available resources, open the door to therapy services or find alternatives to fit both health and cost needs.
Reduce youth loneliness the right way
Between the self-consciousness of fitting in and the way they interact with the world, loneliness is more common among youth today than ever before. It can have ripple effects on their mental and physical health, but they can bounce back by using strategies to reduce their loneliness.
Pyx Health can help too! Our robust platform provides responsible digital intervention centered around human compassion and connectedness. Our app uniquely speaks youth digital-focused language, but in a positive way. With tools such as the Pyxir wellness chatbot, virtual positive psychology activities and access to our supportive ANDYs (Authentic Nurturing Dependable Your friend) for human connection, it’s possible to shift lives for the better. Learn how Pyx Health can be a positive youth companion and reduce loneliness.