Always connected with thousands of "friends" — yet feeling all alone

Generation Z and millennials rated themselves highest on feelings associated with loneliness

Published March 11, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Martin Dimitrov)
(Getty/Martin Dimitrov)

This article originally appeared on Kaiser Health News.

AUSTIN, Texas — Connor Wilton moved here for the music scene. The 24-year-old singer-guitarist “knew zero people in Austin” and felt pretty lonely at first.

While this capital city is one of the nation’s buzziest places and ranks at the top of many “best” lists, Wilton wasn’t feeling it. He lived near the University of Texas at Austin but wasn’t a student; he said walking through “the social megaplex that’s UT-Austin” was intimidating, with its almost 52,000 students all seemingly having fun.

“You definitely feel like you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to penetrate that bubble,” Wilton said.

Austin attracts thousands of newcomers with its thriving economy — heavy on tech, startups and entrepreneurs. And with each year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals — a major interactive, music and film festival opening Friday — some of those visitors also move here. Apple is planning a $1 billion expansion that will make Austin the company’s largest hub outside of California. The median age of Austin residents is 32.7.

But Austin also ranks at the top among cities with lonely folks in a national survey by the global health service company Cigna. Nearly half of the 20,000 adults surveyed last year reported sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). Generation Z (ages 18-22) and millennials (ages 23-37) rated themselves highest on feelings associated with loneliness.

Loneliness, with its well-documented ill effects on health, has been called an epidemic and a public health threat, especially among the elderly. But now experts are finding that the always connected social media mavens in the country’s younger generations report being lonely.

“Younger people are genuinely surprised to ever feel lonely and are really overwhelmed by it,” said Dawn Fallik, an associate professor at the University of Delaware in Newark who’s working on a book about loneliness.

She, along with Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was scheduled to speak at SXSW Friday at two sessions called “Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends.” The close look at loneliness among these techno-connected young people drew so many registrants, SXSW this week added a repeat session at the end of the day.

“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,” Fallik said.

Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of Brigham Young’s Social Connections and Health Research Laboratory, said, “The question that remains is ‘Is this just a developmental stage, or is there something different about this younger generation that hasn’t been true of younger adults in previous generations?’”

Holt-Lunstad cited research by psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University that “does suggest this generation of adolescents is indeed lonelier than previous generations.”

Fallik said young adults may think more about their own loneliness, prompted by celebrities focusing their attention on being lonely, including Lady Gaga in her 2017 documentary.

Daniel Russell, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, said the conflict between how many close friends you’d like to have and how many fewer you actually have may create feelings of loneliness and social isolation. A current study he’s working on about the relationship between social support and loneliness includes a review of 200 studies and suggests the quality of the relationships may be more significant than the quantity.

“What you see is that some people say they are lonely yet report a lot of close friends. Arguably, they’re not socially isolated,” he said.

Russell said studies about the effects of social media have found “virtually no relationship between loneliness and social media.”

“What struck me about the Cigna data is they weren’t finding very strong relationships [between loneliness and social media] either — that it was not statistically significant with 20,000 participants,” he said.

However, some experts, such as Holt-Lunstad, suggest examining how millennials and Generation Z use social media.

“It could be used to connect with others in a way that facilitates getting together, and that could be very positive,” she said. “But scrolling through someone’s feed or social comparisons might be negative.”

In last year’s Cigna study, Generation Z had the highest score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the standard measurement for loneliness research.

Its 17 regional surveys found that 60 percent of Austinites reported loneliness compared with 54 percent nationally. Of those surveyed, 60 percent said they sometimes or often feel no one knows them well.

One reason for such feelings is the city’s population growth, which amounts to 152 newcomers a day since 2010, according to an Austin Chamber analysis of U.S. Census data released two weeks ago.

“It’s a super-transient city,” said Elliot Meade, 27, who moved in August from New York City to work in finance.

“The first couple of months were challenging, but I say that in the context of never having moved to a place where I never had roots before,” he said. “I live alone. I would have probably preferred to have roommates. I didn’t know anyone, and I did not want to roll the dice on a stranger. I had to go out of my way to be social and find common ground and build relationships.”

Unlike young workers of older generations, these young adults are less likely to join professional associations, Rotary Clubs or other groups to meet peers. And the organizations don’t provide the value of connections and resources they once did now that people can find everything they need with a click.

“What comes up over and over again is how scary it is for them to reach out,” Fallik said. “We have lost those social skills when somebody is sick and you bring them soup or somebody died and you have that visit. 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.”

However, David Stillman, an author and expert on generational differences, said moving to a new place is a life transition that’s daunting no matter the age.

“Anyone moving to a new place is in transition and is going to conjure up lonely feelings,” he said. “I think about my 81-year-old mother-in-law who moved from Florida to Minneapolis. The first few months, she had massive loneliness. I’m not sure if that’s any different from my nephew who went to the University of Michigan in the fall as a freshman and the first few weeks was a little lonely.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

By Sharon Jayson

MORE FROM Sharon Jayson