The Loneliness Epidemic
I found myself in a lonely situation when COVID-19 impacted my school in March 2020. I went from being an excited college freshman, eager to figure out life with all my new friends, to being back home alone in my childhood bedroom. My room now felt like a place that no longer fit with the person I had become. I watched as most of my new college friends fell out of touch. After all, COVID kept us apart longer than we had even known each other. My home friends had all changed too. I remained a completely different person trapped in a place I had grown out of. Simply put, I was lonely.
Even before the pandemic, doctors and scientists sounded alarm bells about loneliness. It was deemed an epidemic in 2017 by Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy because of the poor mental and physical health consequences it causes. Loneliness is linked to an increased risk of developing dementia, heart disease, addiction, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Prolonged loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
Loneliness can be incredibly disruptive to teens’ healthy development. It’s not just about lost friendships and uncertainty about the future — increased loneliness due to COVID-19 is related to a rise in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Mental health care professionals worry these issues could become long-term because the teen brain is still developing.
Our Need for Social Connection
Humans are social beings meant to live and function together in groups. Thousands of years ago, this was necessary for our survival and safety. Now, it remains essential for our happiness, well-being, and productivity. However, the 21st century has seen a massive increase in independence and single-person households. As mentioned in the popular podcast Freakonomics, more people live alone now than ever before, which may be the biggest social change in human history.
Wants and needs for social interaction are like a craving. The brain responds in the same way to social interaction after a period of isolation as it does to food after fasting. This response shows the need for human connection to maintain the health of our brains. In fact, periods of extended isolation lead to loneliness and negative physical and mental health.
The pandemic increased social isolation for nearly everyone. We each had to adapt to new circumstances like social distancing and mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. From remote work and school to limited social interactions, people have had to adjust their normal day-to-day life. As a result of this, feelings of loneliness increased, only making the existing problem worse.
Pros and Cons of Digital Connections
Despite this situation, technology has made isolation more bearable. The ability to attend meetings from your bedroom or to see the faces of family and friends on a screen through Facetime or Zoom is a game-changer. It allows social connection when face-to-face interaction is not possible. People who connect with others using technology show better coping mechanisms and a higher ability to maintain their mental health than those who don’t. While these virtual means of communication make the best of a difficult situation, they can have drawbacks. As psychiatrist and associate professor Gianpiero Petriglieri stated, “Every time you connect to a Zoom call, you are having two experiences at the same time: the experience of reaching, and the experience of what you’ve lost.” In other words, seeing your loved one’s face on a screen can serve as a big reminder to just how different and isolating these times can be. I remember times of isolation where I would join calls with my friends to watch movies together or discuss our boring days, only for the silence in my room to feel louder and the loneliness more intense when we hung up.
At the pandemic’s peak, many people turned to the Internet and social media to stay connected and avoid boredom. The pandemic saw a 50-70 percent increase in screen time, and 50 percent of that was spent on social media. Personally, I spend countless hours each day switching between social media and the latest COVID news updates. While it is nice to feel connected to other people’s lives through shared posts, and it is good to be well informed, both of these things have unintended adverse effects. Doomscrolling — the act of devoting screen time to negative news — can increase loneliness and anxiety, making it seem like nothing will ever get better. Spending time on social media can lead to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Instagram, in particular, has been reported to affect how people feel about their body image and feelings of missing out on social events.
I remember scrolling on Instagram and seeing the posts of people I knew hanging out with friends and vacationing in places with more lenient COVID policies. It made me angry to see people not taking the pandemic seriously.Still, I also felt jealous that other people were having fun with family and friends and just generally seemed to be doing well while I was sad and lonely. The reality is, these posts don’t always accurately depict real life. When you post on Instagram, you get to pick and choose how you want to look to your followers. Pictures may be staged, smiles forced, and more importantly, snapshots do not accurately represent a person’s whole life.
How to Cope with Loneliness
Even when life returns to normal, loneliness will continue to be an issue. We can use the tricks we have learned during COVID to combat loneliness at other times in our lives. Here are a few tips on how to combat feelings of loneliness:
- Make a routine: When I found myself isolating at home and away from my everyday life and friends, I found creating a new routine very helpful. Even things as simple as waking up and going to bed at the same time each day can help put a feeling of control and structure back into your life. Have a goal for each day, and structure your day around accomplishing this goal.
- Find a new hobby: I always have a long list of new things I want to try, and quarantine is a great time to try these new things. Turn to sites like YouTube to get yourself started! Here are some examples: Learn to crochet and sell your creations, learn an instrument or learn to cook. Sign up for a free course online and learn a new skill like programming.
- Get active!: Mental and physical health are closely related. Getting a little exercise each day, like going for a walk or a run, doing some yoga, or even just stretching, can help you clear your mind and feel happier.
- Have a goal and a plan: Having a long-term goal can help you feel motivated in your day-to-day life. The goal can be as big or as small as you would like. Here are some suggestions: make a fitness goal like running a 5k or a half marathon within a certain timeframe, try to raise a certain amount of money for charity by a deadline, or challenge yourself to read a new book every week.
- Find something meaningful to dedicate your free time to. Having a sense of meaning is important to maintaining your mental health. Engaging in meaningful activities can improve your sense of self and decrease boredom. For example, you could volunteer for a local organization that you are passionate about.
- Connect with others: Perhaps the most obvious way to decrease loneliness is to spend time with others. Ideally, you do this in-person, but there are plenty of other ways to receive the benefits of social interaction. I stayed connected with my friends by watching movies together remotely using Discord or Teleparty.
These strategies helped me spend time by myself, but not be lonely. Each day I have my routine that keeps me motivated and busy and I know my friends and family are only a phone call or text message away.
This article was written by Samantha Costello. At the time this article was published, Costello was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania studying cognitive science and bioethics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her primary academic interests lie in brain plasticity, human behavior, and learning.