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The Dartmouth
May 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Farquharson: What’s Making Us So Lonely?

A change in our social media-obsessed, hyper-individualist culture is necessary to solve America’s loneliness epidemic.

In a world where people can connect with others halfway around the world in mere seconds, even suggesting that society struggles from widespread feelings of loneliness may sound dichotomous. 

Yet, data suggests otherwise. A nationwide survey performed by global health service company Cigna in 2019 shows that two in five Americans say they suffer from loneliness and a lack of meaningful relationships. The survey included more than 20,000 adults 18 and older. The results were shocking: almost 50% of the participants met the official criteria of being lonely. Generation Z — people 18 to 22 years old — was found to be the loneliest generation, while the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers were the least lonely. Similarly, a 2021 American Perspectives Survey (APS) finds that Americans report having a low number of close friendships on average. What is really concerning goes beyond the immediate results of this survey: It shows a widespread increase in social isolation over the past 30 years. Compared to 75% in 1990, only 59% of those surveyed reported having best friends in 2021.

Based on these results, it is almost certain that many of us have either felt lonely at some point in time or at least know someone dealing with such a struggle. 

“Why?” is the question we must answer. 

Social media platforms such as  TikTok, Instagram and Facebook allow us to interact with complete strangers and consume hours of content simply by scrolling on our phones. Yet, despite their ostensibly unifying nature, these platforms only exacerbate, or perhaps constitute the cause of, the social disconnect. These apps reduce human emotional interactions to simple emojis: We can now express our feelings through the click of a button, eroding our ability to meaningfully display emotion and exercise two-way communication, without realizing how this mode of communication slowly changes our perception of what true “human connection” and “friendship” should be. 

It seems the craze over social media engenders more than weakened friendships. A Harvard study found that using smartphones and other electronic devices harms brain functioning by reducing the amount of Non-REM Stage N2 sleep — necessary for information storage — that teens get. Apart from more difficulty in completing daily tasks, reduced brain function can hinder people’s ability to actively engage with others in social situations. It may also diminish our ability to understand social cues, which is indispensable to building relationships.

But it doesn’t end there. Social media instills narcissistic overtones in the ways we view ourselves. The Internet’s obsession with edited and photoshopped images distorts our perception of what we should look like in order to be accepted by others. Reduced self-esteem hampers our courage to meet new people and build relationships. Moreover, such images sow competition amongst people. 

Yet, social media is not the only culprit for loneliness; I would be remiss not to look at the type of society where social isolation thrives. Ingrained in our neoliberal, capitalist culture is an ultra-individualistic outlook that places value on personal success — and the prerequisite competition —  over cooperation and human connection. As opposed to collectivism, which emphasizes close social networks and family relationships and does not stigmatize interdependence, individualism peddles the idea that personal success without interdependence trumps all else.

Incoming College President Sian Leah Beilock notes in Scientific American that loneliness is most prevalent in individualistic societies such as our’s, adding that young people have the highest risk of lacking companionship. She explains that extended isolation can affect our brain’s neurobiology and create a “hunger” or “thirst” for contact that fuels feelings of loneliness. This, in turn, raises the risk of myriad physical and mental health problems including strokes and heart disease. 

It’s clear the only way to mitigate the loneliness epidemic is a substantive change in culture through new behavioral patterns, values, social structures and innovations. No doubt it will take time and effort to make that change happen. There are steps we can take to mitigate the harmful effects of loneliness.

The UK introduced a “Minister of Loneliness” who gauges the prevalence of loneliness in the country and formulates plans to use government resources to combat it. This might include mental health resources and social resources aimed at helping people establish connections and find companionship. Governments across the world — especially in individualistic societies like the US that are especially prone to loneliness epidemics — should all mobilize resources to ameliorate social isolation. 

Cutting social media is another crucial strategy. As stated earlier, social media fuels loneliness by dissolving human emotional connections, driving competition over cooperation and eroding self-confidence. If nothing else, reducing time on social media would allow us to get to know others through genuine interactions.

We should also emphasize self-awareness and self-care. Loneliness creates a vicious circle of internalized negativity, and poor self image is a natural outcome for many. Keep a journal. Write down all the things you are grateful for. Remind yourself that others may see you more positively than you see yourself. List the areas you would want to see change or improvement. Start working on those areas to reach your best self. This will help boost self esteem, which is hugely important in taking the necessary steps to overcome loneliness. When we are down, it is easy to overlook even basic self care. Eating healthy, exercising and getting enough sleep will make you feel better in the long run. 

Finally, discover what it means to be a true friend. Many get lost in the turnout of their social media followers on their latest post. Instead of thousands of social media friends, focus and spend the time on a few quality friendships. True friendships are trustworthy, selfless, empathetic, vulnerable and fun. Can you be the person that others can trust and count on when they are most vulnerable? Are you willing to share all human emotional experiences genuinely? 

An unhealthy obsession with social media, in tandem with the phenomena of hyper-individualism caused by neoliberalism and capitalism, has precipitated an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. I argue that only significant cultural changes can ameliorate these realities. We must, as a society, break free of the harmful elements of hyper-individualism and bring ourselves to understand once again the indispensable value of self-confidence, human connection and friendship. If we do not, the loneliness epidemic will only continue to worsen, affecting the lives of so many millions of Americans — including our own families and friends.