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COVID Times: Youth + Loneliness

There is an increasing sense of loneliness and isolation in America. People feel despondent, removed, unsure of the future. “Deaths of despair” are on the rise. Also, data show that the situation is worse amongst youth. Albeit, controversial, digital technology can be a supportive tool for teens and young adults to connect and access important health information. Yet entirely relying on digital tools to deepen relationships and build communities where there is a sense of belonging amongst its members could be short sighted. 

A recent study of over 1500 Americans from January to April 2020 found that there was not a significant increase in the sense of loneliness amongst older and middle-aged adults during COVID-19 times; however, young adults are not faring as well. Multiple reports have shown that young adults are experiencing at least one negative mental or behavioral health symptom as a result of COVID, including suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety.

What is loneliness and why is it important to pay attention to?

What exactly is loneliness? Is it simply being alone? In the book Dear Data which she co-authored, data designer Stefanie Posavec created a beautiful illustration of the various types of being alone. She differentiated the times when she felt emotionally alone and those times when she was physically alone.

Worth noting here is that “being alone” is a state while “loneliness” is a feeling and the two do not necessarily correlate. There’s a sense of the feeling, and she was able to capture her awareness of that feeling in this visualization. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy in his recently released book, Together, provides a more nuanced definition of loneliness: it is a perception of a gap between the people you need in your life and the people you have around you. Loneliness can emerge when there is no sense of belonging to and active engagement in a community.  Experiencing loneliness can also result from a lack of mutual intimacy with another. And the feeling of true belonging persists even in the state of being alone.

Dr. Murthy focuses on loneliness and social isolation as the cornerstone of our social and cultural dislocation and erosion. And as so many have shown, the growing sense of loneliness felt even beyond the current pandemic has a profound impact on our physical health. Studies have shown physical effects of loneliness include a weakened immune system and insomnia.  “There’s a lower lifespan, lower quality of life, and lower sense of self-worth,” says Dr. Murthy.

In fact, just as COVID-19 slammed down onto the world, MIT researchers released a preliminary report that showed how loneliness and hunger share the same brain signals that govern basic impulses for reward and motivation. In other words, our need for human connection is as necessary as our need to eat.

How have young adults and teens been using digital technology to gain a sense of wellness in their lives?

Susannah Fox and Victoria Rideout, with support from Hopelab and Well Being Trust, published a report in 2018 that assessed digital health practices amongst teens and young adults, ages 14-22. They looked at a host of variables including gender, sexual orientation, symptoms of depression, anxiety or loneliness, and age to see how social media and information online was accessed and interpreted, especially as it relates to health and wellness. 

They report that nearly nine out of ten teens and young adults have gone online to get health information. Social media is an integral part of youth and teens lifestyles, with over 90% on at least one social media platform. How these platforms impact the sense of loneliness and sense of identity ranges, especially as it pertains to different health conditions.

These data show how social media impacts teen and young adult’s sense of self and their community. Only a small majority feel they receive a sense of belonging from their online community, yet how they present themselves there lacks vulnerability or authenticity. The “best self” is presented more regularly than the “everyday self” so there is a strong tendency to compare with and see others as better than one’s self.

Yet for teens and young adults with symptoms of depression, stress or anxiety, social media becomes an important vehicle for expressing oneself, being inspired by others, and feeling less alone. For those identifying as LGBTQ, online communities are even more important.  

With these data in mind, it’s interesting that the use of technology to (re)gain human connection does not safeguard teens and young adults from increased feelings of anxiety, depression, or loneliness in COVID times. The disparity between the more recent data set that shows teens experiencing an increased sense of loneliness, despite being pushed to interact nearly exclusively online and this data set that shows how young adults and teens find a sense of mutual purpose, friendship, critical, reaffirming information, and camaraderie online are from very different times. But the differences bring about interesting questions around how much even peripheral human to human interaction factors into our overall sense of wellbeing. 

Perhaps exclusive reliance on the mercurial ways and personas hatched within social media as a means to connect or to define oneself and sense of purpose adds to the torrent of anger and social dissociation felt by so many right now. We have allowed ourselves to be so layered in how we are influenced; social media capitalizes on and reinforces this, algorithmically foisting certain ideas of beauty, success, independence, and dependence upon us. 

How might understanding how we care for each other counteract a sense of loneliness and social isolation experienced amongst young adults and teens?

Mr. Rogers has famously said:  “You can’t really love someone else if you don’t love yourself first.” 

He demonstrates this notion in every television episode made. He shows through his characters how valuing their own self worth, their own uniqueness and also seeing – and making space for – the uniqueness in others is how our neighborhoods thrive. 

If we are lonely and socially disconnected we aren’t connecting with people, which means we’re not listening and not empathizing. “Relationship is the foundation of dialogue,” says Dr. Murthy. 

And for these reasons, the health of our relationships and connection – how we care for each other and ourselves – is critical. It’s the only way we can start to redesign how we build communities that are more flexible and agile, and that truly support all its members in the way they require. 

Young adults and teens right now are exposed to so many signals that tell them how they should be, what they should think, how they should behave and look, and definitions of success or power. Measurements of self-worth — which is directly correlated to our ability to give and receive love — is tied to these arbitrary metrics.

When facilitating a Mapping Ourselves workshop in Fremont, Michigan for high school students, I was impacted by a few stories where the teens changed how they expressed and received love from their families after seeing the different people around them on their Atlas CareMap.

One student began to tear up when he thought of how much he loved his best friend and how much support and care he received from him. By acknowledging his friend on his CareMap, this student began recalling how reliant he was on his friend for authentic connection and respect. He also appreciated how his family embraced his friend as another family member, and that without his friend he would be incredibly lonely.

College students at San Jose State University, who had reflected on their social connections through an analysis of their CareMaps, likewise had a deeper appreciation of their lives. One very shy student’s epiphany was that to be less lonely she was going to have to interact with more people. She said that she realized that “care is not a solitary activity.” Two students came to realize the importance of their sorority and fraternity as they discovered that their “Big Sis” and “Big Bro” were the most important relationships in their lives.

Through the process many realized that they had many more close relationships than they had initially realized, adding school friends, team members, and roommates to their CareMaps. Several also mentioned an increased sense of responsibility to the people in their lives. One student had initially drawn a brother as being on the periphery, not central to her life, but circumstances caused her to see how much she cared about him, and that she needed to step up as his big sister. She captured this with the phrase “relationships in the periphery … reimagined”.

For youth experiencing loneliness and social isolation during COVID, supporting human-to-human connection is important, but also understanding the larger systemic issues at play is needed. What this means is building up our sense of self-worth, or a perceived ability to give and receive love. And it’s not just for the young adults and teens – everyone is needing a bit of a bump these days. If we can see our dependence on each other and our desire and need to receive and give love as a strength rather than weakness, imagine the empathetic and inclusive worlds we can build for our kids.

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