Exploring the tragic contemporary global loneliness epidemic
When we speak about loneliness, we often imagine an old person living in solitude. To a certain extent, our imaginations do not deceive us. The loneliness epidemic amongst Baby Boomers has attracted a great deal of attention over the last few years, and rightly so; one of every 11 is growing old without a support system. However, a major survey of over 55,000 people conducted by the BBC found that the loneliest individuals are not the Baby Boomers, but those aged between 16 and 24. Loneliness among the youth is an epidemic that is found all over the world. Research done by Cigna and market research firm Ipsos found that young people age 18 to 22 are most likely to be lonely in the U.S. In another study conducted by the American Sociological Review, the average person in the U.S. claims to only have one close friend.
Young people are profoundly affected by loneliness because they are still trying to discover themselves, they are out of school and they do not have any institutional securities. They don't know how and where to meet other people and end up staying home. South Korea has 5.6 million one-person households while Japan has more than half a million people under 40 who haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months. This pattern can be observed worldwide. Over the course of six months, lonely people are more likely to experience higher rates of depression, social anxiety and paranoia. The World Economic Forum estimated that the direct and indirect costs of mental health care amount to over 4% of global Gross Domestic Product, more than the cost of cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease combined. This could cost the global economy up to $16 trillion between 2010 and 2030 if the collective failure to respond is not addressed.
Former Surgeon-General of the United States Vivek Murthy has called loneliness an epidemic and has compared its impact to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A Dutch study, published in December 2012, demonstrated that people who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely.
Social media is often blamed for the loneliness, depression and anxiety experienced by the youth worldwide. In India, 23% of students are logging more than eight hours on their smartphones daily because of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). However, we shouldn’t rush to put all the blame on social media. There is no consensus about the impact of social media on the mental health of young adults, as loneliness affects each person differently. The effects of prolonged Internet usage on the human brain do not appear to directly translate into negative behaviors. Social media is not inherently bad. Isolation among the young has always been there and social media only brought it to light.
Dating apps were supposed to act as a panacea for loneliness, but have not been very helpful. Excessive choices can lead us to doubt ourselves, incite feelings of frustration and have unrealistic expectations. These apps also make people insecure about themselves, which further depresses them. Research by the University of North Texas found that men who use Tinder had lower levels of satisfaction with their appearances and even lower levels of self-esteem than those not on the dating app.
Loneliness is subjective; it's an emotional rather than a physical state. A person can have a great social life, friends and family and still feel lonely. It’s the difference between the social relationships you want and the relationships you currently have.
Our society also has played a very important role in pushing young people to loneliness. As a community, we tend to celebrate individual achievements more, and success is determined by what we do instead of how we live our lives. In many eastern cultures, including my own, acknowledging your loneliness is equivalent to confessing absolute failure.
Young people are made constantly aware that everything they do has to have a purpose; they lose the chance to have conversations with peers which could help them build relationships which could later develop into their personal support system. Sharing experiences with each other will help in dealing with isolation among young people. Humans react emotionally when they hear about other people’s experiences. These conversations enhance mutual feelings of validation and encouragement and can eventually lead to improved self-esteem. Parents and counselors also need to play a role in teaching young people about the friendships and what it means to be a good friend. We need to normalize feelings of loneliness, and the innate human need to connect should not be seen as a weakness. Furthermore, health education classes need to discuss the social well-being of young people. Classes that incorporate social health in the curriculum can help navigate young people who are experiencing loneliness. Additionally, digital tools such as XiaoIce, which was designed to socialize with users, can also be used to help young people develop social confidence and practice new skills within a safe space, where they have control over the interactions.
Human beings are born social, and it’s critical for people living alone to seek social support. The negative feelings that people feel can be greatly reduced by simply talking to friends or family, which would result in improved mental and physical health and would also improve the overall quality of life quality of young people worldwide.
The society we live in needs to realize that loneliness is a prevalent problem amongst young people. Only then can we take steps to tackle it. A campaign was launched in Britain called “Let’s talk loneliness.” This has helped to engage people in this difficult conversation. One grant of $640 was given to a Birmingham group to buy board games and start a game club. In another example of people trying to help young people volunteers meet up or speak to people on the phone who are feeling a sense of loneliness through the wolfpack project. Another group in Denmark Ventilen offers young people a place where they regularly meet for conversations. We need such organic solutions in all cultures and societies so more young people have someone to talk with, which would help them in alleviating their loneliness.