America’s Loneliness Epidemic

According to a new nationwide survey performed by global health service company Cigna, America is currently undergoing a “loneliness epidemic” with almost 50% of participants feeling lonely. Researchers surveyed more than 20,000 adults aged 18 and older and utilized the UCLA Loneliness Scale to tally scores on a scale of 20 to 80, identifying those that scored above a 43 as being officially lonely.

An astonishing 43% of participants (that’s 2 in 5 Americans) sometimes or always feel isolated from others and that their relationships are not meaningful. Additionally, 27% (that’s 1 in 4 Americans) rarely or never feel as though there are people that really understand and connect with them. Only 53% of participants felt that they have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis. Researchers are attributing these figures to the current lifestyle trends of Americans – more and more people are focusing on work, living father away from loved ones, and relying on social media interactions as opposed to face-to-face interactions. As a result, real and meaningful relationships have become superfluous and isolation has peaked.

What this comes down to is that we, as a society, are experiencing a lack of connection.

- Douglas Nemecek, MD, Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna

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Unfortunately, it seems that the younger generations are feeling this the most. The study found that Loneliness scores rose among the younger generations, with the youngest generation, Gen Z, feeling the loneliest. Gen Z, individuals born between the 1997 and the early 2000s, scored a 48.3 overall. Millennials, those born between the years 1981 and 1996, then scored a 45.3 on the Loneliness scale. Gen X scored a dreary 45.1 and Baby Boomers scored a 42.4. Those of grandparenting or great-grandparenting age, the Greatest Generation, were the least lonely, with a score of 38.6. Cigna’s findings not only identified Gen Z (adults 18-22) as the loneliest generation, but also the generation that claims to be in the worst health compared to other age demographics.

“While we know that this is a group that’s coming of age and making life transitions, these findings give us a clear and surprising picture of how this generation perceives themselves,” says Nemecek. “It’s important the communities that these young people are a part of take note and explore solutions. It’s critical that they’re have spaces where young people can connect face-to-face to form meaningful relationships.”

The Health Risks Of Loneliness

The toll that loneliness takes on a person goes beyond just emotional well-being and directly affects the physical. Indeed, science has long shown a direct correlation between loneliness and poor overall health, and the Cigna survey demonstrates this well.

Half of respondents who rarely have in-person interactions reported they are in fair/poor overall health, while just 12% of those who have daily in-person interactions are in fair/poor overall health. Half of those who rarely have in-person interactions also say they’re in fair/poor physical health (52% vs. 23% of those who are socially active) and mental health (51% vs. 12%). Additionally, people who rarely have in-person interactions are also less likely to lead healthy balanced lives, such as getting enough sleep and spending time with loved ones, than those who are socially active.

Research has found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.

- Douglas Nemecek, MD, Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna

Loneliness and social isolation are incredibly harmful to overall health. Not only can loneliness exacerbate certain pre-existing health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, but it can also increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. In fact, a 2015 study revealed that loneliness and social isolation increases the chance of premature death by up to 50%.

Social Media’s Role In Loneliness

In today’s society, people are more connected than ever before. That leads some to believe that the people who grew up in this era to be more social and feel more loved than any other generation before as well. However, that’s simply not the case. Gen Z and Millennials were identified as the loneliest generations and social media is thought to be the main contributing factor of loneliness in these younger generations.

Gen Z and Millennials spend more time on social media than any other generation and many officials think that the curated versions people put of themselves online make it difficult to create real connections with others. Social networking sites foster an environment for artificial interactions that provide superficial connection rather than the actual meaningful connections that face-to-face interactions provide. In fact, a recent study published by Clinical Psychological Science, revealed that adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 who spent more time on social media and smartphones were also more likely to report mental health issues, as opposed to teens who spent more time hanging out with friends, exercising, doing homework, reading print media and attending religious services.

Gen Z spends less time with their friends face-to-face and more time online and on social media. As we know from decades of research, people who interact with others face-to-face are less likely to be lonely. Recent research suggests that those who spend more time on social media, in contrast, are more likely to be lonely.

- Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego University

However, some officials argue that the influence of social media may be overstated. Loneliness among Millennials and Gen Z may also be driven by personal and societal challenges that are more pronounced in their generations, such as economic pressures, workplace variations, climate change, and difficulty starting a family.

Regardless of the reason, loneliness is an epidemic that America’s youth is currently struggling with. Cigna researchers advocate for parents to take an active role in their children’s lives and monitor social media use. They also say that one of the most important things that parents can do is to encourage teens to hang out with friends and have regular, meaningful social interactions.

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Jena Hilliard

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  • Jena Hilliard earned her Bachelor’s of Arts degree from the University of Central Florida in English Literature. She has always had a passion for literature and the written word. Upon graduation, Jena found her purpose in educating the public on addiction and helping those that struggle with substance dependency find the best treatment options available.

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