Millennials and Generation Z are the most connected generations but are also considered the loneliest. According to a recent survey of 20,000 adults nationwide by the global health service company Cigna, Generation Z (ages 18-22) and millennials (ages 23-37) rate themselves the highest on feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Loneliness, especially among the elderly, is well-documented for its poor health effects. Some researchers have called loneliness a public health threat and even an epidemic. But while social isolation has been studied in elderly Americans, analysts are learning that younger generations are also dealing with it.
“Younger people are genuinely surprised to ever feel lonely and are really overwhelmed by it,” said Dawn Fallik, a professor at the University of Delaware.
Fallik and Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad recently gave a talk at Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest Conference titled “Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends.” Fallik intends to write a book on the subject.
“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,” said Fallik.
Daniel Russell, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, suggests that feelings of loneliness and social isolation may come from the difference between how many close friends you’d like to have and how many fewer you actually have.
“What you see is that some people say they are lonely yet report a lot of close friends,” said Russell. “Arguably, they’re not socially isolated.”
Russell is currently working on a study on the relationship between social support and loneliness. The study includes a review of 200 previous reports and suggests that the quality of the relationships may be more important than the quantity of them.
Previous studies on the effects of social media, Russell said, have found no relationship between social media and loneliness.
“What struck me about the Cigna data is they weren’t finding very strong relationships between loneliness and social media either,” said Russell, “that it was no statistically significant with 20,000 participants.”
It was Holt-Lunstad who suggested examining how millennials and Generation Z use social media. Social media could either be used in a positive way to connect with others and facilitate getting together, she said, or it could be used to negatively compare one’s life to another person’s.
In the Cigna study, researchers used the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Generation Z had the highest score.
The study also found that young adults are less likely to join professional associations where they can meet peers. These organizations are also failing to provide the value of connections and resources they used to provide because members are able to find everything they need with one click.
Fallik says young adults are scared to reach out and that the social skills of the past are being lost. “We’ve lost that ability to have those talks, and because we don’t have that now, my students are terrified at those conversations where you’re looking them in the eye,” she said.
It’s no secret that humans as a species are social creatures, but loneliness has been found to be as bad for our health as smoking. Previous research has found that loneliness and social isolation can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, immune system problems, and can even impact your chances of recovering from cancer.
Part of this increased risk comes from the fact that you’re more likely to eat unhealthy when you’re feeling depressed. For instance, pizza is the number one comfort food in the U.S. and the average American will eat 4.3 burgers in one month.
Coincidentally, one in six Americans will get six from eating contaminated food.
But, surprisingly, these increased health risks associated with loneliness aren’t being caused by what we’re putting into our bodies because we’re depressed. Loneliness can warp our genes and immune systems. This is because loneliness increases stress, which fuels inflammation in the body.
“Inflammation can change people’s experiences of the social world and what they’re thinking,” said Naomi Eisenberger, a neuroscientist at the UCLA. So not only can loneliness cause health issues, but it can make us more apprehensive of social interaction and lead to more isolation.