The Loneliness Epidemic Among College Students
The common perception of post-secondary life is a time of self-discovery, new friendships and adventure. It’s presented as the archetypal “time of your life” so frequently, students feeling lonely in college often measure their experience against that expectation and find their own lives wanting.
A different picture of college life has emerged. Formed in the age of social media and crippling student debt, these years are often an isolating experience for many and very different from the constant party depicted in films like Animal House or Van Wilder. It’s no exaggeration to say that there exists an epidemic of loneliness among today’s college students, and that formulating solutions won’t be easy. It presents an acute challenge to parents, too, who naturally want their children to have a positive experience, but also have to learn that they can’t fix everything in parenting a young adult.
The “Loneliest Generation”
The problem isn’t limited to students. Across American society, close friendships and meaningful social interaction have been growing rarer over the last two to three decades. The statistics are striking: the average American reports having only one close friend, down from three in 1985, and nearly a third of Americans have no close confidants with whom to share the highs and lows of life. Almost half of all meals in the US are eaten alone. The numbers are a sobering glimpse into the reality of the “loneliest generation,” a society in which many are passive online observers in the lives of Facebook friends they rarely see face to face.
Coverage In the Media
Reporting of this trend is intermittent and often focuses on one demographic to the exclusion of others. There’s no shortage of news reports painting baby boomers as the most affected group, aging alone in larger numbers than ever before. On the other hand, the most recent Cigna US Loneliness Index survey shows a different picture in which Gen Z adults ages 18 to 22 are the hardest hit by loneliness. Cigna identified that the loneliest generation of adults was Generation Z. This group, born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, received a loneliness score of 48.3. Millennials had the next highest score of 45.3. Baby Boomers scored 42.4 while those 72 and above, known as the Greatest Generation, scored 38.6 on the scale.
The results of that survey came as a surprise to media outlets, and the full severity of the loneliness epidemic affecting Gen Z still isn’t reflected in general coverage. That complicates efforts to help college students recognize and come to grips with the problem and feel they’re supported by society in doing so.
How Many College Students Suffer from Loneliness?
Out of a sample size of almost 48,000 undergraduate students across 92 schools, over 64 percent of respondents to a 2017 college health survey reported feeling very lonely during the past year, with less than a fifth of replies reporting no loneliness in that timeframe. Of those reporting extreme loneliness over the course of a year, around 42 percent had suffered from perceived social isolation within the last month. Extrapolating the bigger picture from this data is a complicated task, but it unmistakably points toward millions of undergrads being potentially affected by the loneliness epidemic.
Tackling New Phases of Life
Part of what can make the impact of loneliness on undergrads at college is having unrealistic expectations of new life phases. In a New York Times piece, Emily Bergmann — a student who created a video on the topic of loneliness that went viral — puts it eloquently:
Managing those kinds of expectations and not expecting social media to fill the void can be useful strategies to alleviate some of the loneliness that so many new undergrads face. However, the full range of causes of the loneliness epidemic are more complex.
What’s causing the Loneliness Epidemic?
According to the aforementioned Cigna survey, being a student correlates heavily with scoring high on the loneliness index. The only category of respondents likelier to be lonely were those suffering forced unemployment. There are a few factors that can explain this.
Age Segregation and Being Lonely in College
Age segregation has become a major general concern for American society as a whole. The relative lack of significant social contact between generations can have worrying impacts on social and political cohesion and can lead to unrealistic views of the aging process for younger generations, among other things. It’s also a potential problem for healthy socialization on college campuses.
It’s commonplace for students on campuses to live in cohorts that are segregated by primary educational interests and peer group. This robs them of the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of older students and faculty in adjusting to their new surroundings and may subject them to a relatively arid social environment compared to home where they’re rarely (if ever) exposed to contemporaries who have small children, for example. Robert O’Hara puts the point passionately in an argument for The Collegiate Landscape of the Future:
I have heard housing officers declare that students neither like nor want to have children and older people around them in dormitories. The claim is that students are only comfortable relating to their “peers.” To discover the foolishness of this notion one need only watch what happens when a small child is introduced into a room full of undergraduates who haven’t seen their own younger brothers and sisters in months.
In fact, age-gap friendships and companionship are a known boon to health across for young and elderly alike. Having a means of getting in touch with people of other age groups suggests itself as one possible solution to loneliness in college.
Living Away From Home for the First Time
Moving away from home and into a college residential situation is always a jarring experience, and for many students, it can become a major cause of loneliness. Being dislocated from support networks of families and friends that have been built up for years or indeed their entire lives to that point, new students can be left feeling friendless and unhappy. They may also worry about facing social stigma for admitting to feeling this way, causing further isolation.
Loneliness and Roommates
Roommate relationships at college can go one of two ways. If the relationship gets off to a good start with both parties willing to open up to one another and learn about each other, roommates can be crucial to helping stave off loneliness. If, on the other hand, the relationship stays distant and the roommates are invested in guarding and cultivating their self-image — an understandable temptation when one is in an unfamiliar situation — roommate relationships can become essentially like living alone in a two-person apartment. One of the key reported components of loneliness in college is feeling isolated even when in the company of others, and this can be particularly difficult when it becomes a constant of a student’s “home” life.
Technology & Social Media
A recent study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found a strong correlation between high levels of social media use and feelings of loneliness and depression, and that limiting online time reduced those effects. Social media is generally recognized as a major indicator for feeling lonely in college and elsewhere, a large enough factor to warrant its own discussion.
The Perils of Social Media
Attempting to use social media to compensate for a lack of real-world, active friendships comes with several perils that can worsen feelings of isolation.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
People tend to portray their lives in their sunniest, most positive light on social media. This can produce a deceptive impression that all of a student’s connections on Facebook, Twitter or other such networks are more together, more connected and generally having more fun than they are. The sense that one is missing out on an overall good time can further entrench feelings of shame and stigma at feeling alone and awkward, like the only one who’s failing to fit into an environment where everyone else presents the appearance of succeeding and thriving.
It’s a well-recognized fact that social media interacts with the ventral tegmental area of the human brain, rewarding the perception of social success with releases of dopamine. This is a primal part of the brain that conceives of social success or failure in primal terms, reacting to a lack of Facebook likes with the same urgency that an ancestor’s brain might have reacted to being cast out from a camp to deal with the jackals alone.
Trivial conflicts on social media often take on seemingly life-or-death stakes for the participants for this reason, and as social media stress increases, the reliance on superficial approval online gets more pronounced in compensation. It can become a vicious cycle that gradually isolates students from an offline social life.
Avoiding Social Interactions
For all that social media can impart stress and reward systems that take the place of their real-world counterparts, it’s still relatively risk-free to interact from behind a computer screen than it is to interact in real life. This is attested to by the very existence of internet “trolls” who do and say things online that they would never attempt face-to-face.
It can also mean that people who are already feeling socially isolated and out of their depth may come to prefer virtual interaction to the real thing, with all its attendant possibilities of real-life embarrassment and disappointment. This, too, can become a self-reinforcing cycle, with social media use producing more isolation and the resulting isolation, in turn, producing an increasingly pronounced dependence on social media.
These factors taken together can have serious implications for the physical and mental health of lonely college students.
Loneliness and Depression: How Are They Related?
As loneliness worsens, it can lead to health consequences. Depression is one of the most common outcomes, but there are others.
Loneliness Can Lead to Depression
- Feelings of sadness, fear or numbness
- Being overwhelmed
- Having a sense of worthlessness
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of pleasure in formerly enjoyed activities
More severe symptoms can include:
- Loss or change of appetite, and weight gain or loss that’s not the outcome of dieting
- Nervous physical tics or slowed speech and movement
- Difficulty choosing a course of action or thinking clearly
- Morbid or suicidal thoughts
Depression is typically diagnosed in people who suffer from a combination of these symptoms for two weeks or more. It’s important to remember that having one or two of these feelings is not necessarily a sign of clinical depression, but as more of these symptoms emerge, the likelier it becomes that this disorder is the culprit. Getting a professional perspective is always critical.
Mental Health Resources
The number of college students facing mental health struggles is on the rise, in part related to the loneliness epidemic. Fortunately, there are a wide range of options available for seeking support. One of the most important campus mental health resources is the peer-to-peer student group where people can talk openly and without fear of stigma about the issues they’re facing and receive guidance from a faculty advisor to further help both on- and off-campus. Most colleges also have a health and counseling center that can serve as a first step on the journey to getting help, and they often partner with mental health organizations and hospitals in the community to give students direct access to professional support and counselling.
In cases where on-campus resources aren’t as available or students prefer not to use them, national groups and associations such the Anxiety and Depression Association of America exist to provide guidance and resources to those in need.
The Negative Health Impacts of Loneliness
Loneliness can have other health impacts in the long term. These can include elevated stress hormones and blood pressure, deterioration in the efficiency and quality of sleep, and alcoholism or other substance abuse disorders. Seeking out help with these problems can start through a general practitioner or the health and counseling center on campus. Preventative health and proactive management of loneliness can be important in keeping social isolation from resulting in these outcomes, or ameliorating them if they do happen.
Proactive Steps to Managing Loneliness
There are several strategies that appear to work in managing and reducing loneliness, as noted in the recent Cigna survey mentioned above.
A Conversation a Day: The most dramatic impact on loneliness comes from meaningful in-person interactions. Daily interaction is ideal, but even weekly interaction can have a tangible positive impact.
Balanced Sleeping Patterns: Having regular, balanced sleeping patterns goes together with lower levels of loneliness. It’s worth trying to cultivate a regular sleep schedule. Excessive sleep, however, correlates with higher loneliness.
Exercise: People in good health tend to report less loneliness, and since exercise and good health tend to coincide, it’s not surprising that people who exercise regularly also tend to feel less lonely. That said, this should be done in moderation. People who exercise obsessively and/or excessively actually report higher levels of loneliness, a sign that this strategy is becoming an addiction in itself.
Work: Having a well-balanced working schedule, insofar as student life permits it, correlates with lower levels of loneliness.
Limit Media Intake: Limiting social media use to no more than 10 minutes per app, per day has been shown to a have a major impact in reducing loneliness and depression.
Volunteer, Join a Club or Religious Organization: Volunteering for a charity or a non-profit, joining a student club, getting involved with a congenial religious organization or becoming a Mon Ami activity companion can all be ways to increase meaningful day-to-day contacts, get out and about more and enjoy the satisfaction of accomplishing something worthwhile.
Get Food: Believe it or not, making an excursion to get food — or even ordering a meal in — can have a positive impact and help to reduce loneliness.
How Parents and Administrators Can Support Students
Watching young adults struggle to acclimate themselves to college can be almost as wrenching for the parents who know they’re struggling and search for ways to help, and for other adults whose work impacts their lives and would love to provide all the support they can. Fortunately, parents, administrators and faculty can all play a positive role in helping students to find ways out of the cycle of loneliness.
College faculty can run workshops that talk frankly about the problem of loneliness and provide students with help or advice in coping, or even just a chance to reach out and make some connections with each on the spot. One form of these — the cuddle workshop — takes the form of sharing, trust-building exercises and physically hugging fellow participants.
This is parenting advice that consists mostly of refraining rather than acting, but it’s important. The desire to “hover,” to be always there to give advice or monetary support — and the temptation to take your child’s life struggles personally, as an indictment of your own parenting — can be overwhelming. Well-meaning advice can, however, just as easily be perceived as criticism that actually reinforces feelings of low self-esteem and isolation.
One of the best ways parents and faculty can support students is to let them know up-front about some of the social challenges their new and unfamiliar environment can involve, and that it’s perfectly normal and nothing shameful to feel a little awkward and isolated at first. Recommending a few possible activities (without pushing them) and letting them know that a little loneliness doesn’t make them a freak or the odd person out can be an important support for their adjustment.
Feeling depressed or lonely in college is far more common than many people think, and it can be a complicated problem to confront. Still, for the student suffering from persistent feelings of social isolation, it’s well worth learning more about the topic. There are habits that can lessen it as well as habits that can give it a greater hold on you, with overuse of social media being one of the biggest factors among the latter.
The good news is that no matter how long loneliness lasts, there are plenty of supports that can help in coping with its health effects, along with lots of simple and accessible ways to get out of a socially isolated rut. In the meantime, learning to cope, and to seek help, in unfamiliar environments can help us develop resilience for the challenges of later life. Parents and loved ones may struggle to watch from the sidelines, but if the right supports are present, they can also use this as an opportunity to develop faith in the strength of their younger loved ones.
Above all, the most important thing to understand is that you’re not alone. Loneliness is a lot more pervasive than we’ve been conditioned to think, often hidden behind the masks of perfectly-curated social media feeds that give the impression that everyone else in the world is more together than we are. There doesn’t need to be any shame in reaching out, and making the decision to be proactive about social connection can be one of the best steps a student can take for their overall health and happiness.