Loneliness. Is this the future of a generation?

In the past 5 years, I’ve noticed a trend in my conversations with teens and amongst friends, family, and acquaintances. As I raise my children and they ask for more time on the tablet or request to send texts to family, I worry about the trend taking hold of my kids. The trend is feeling alone.

I attended a speaking event by researcher Dr. Niobe Way a few years ago and left with tears in my eyes. She described the transition of boys from connecting, emotion expressing, playful little beings to young men who have ‘buddies’ but no confidants; are comfortable showing anger or pride, but not fear or sadness. Our culture may have shifted the definition of ‘masculine’ to be one that encompasses independence at the cost of connection. An article I read recently described this shift. In it, the author describes higher rates of unemployment, divorce, suicide, and violence among adult males. The key points in the article lead me to consider the increased number of mass shootings in the US. Men have carried all these out. I cannot assume that loneliness, shifts in cultural norms, or changes in how emotions are expressed cause people to kill. I do not know the motivations of the murderers and in no way am I excusing the horrific atrocities they carried out; but I have to hope that we can prevent a massacre from happening again. While many factors need to be considered and intervened upon, changing how we treat each other is a step in tackling the loneliness and despair a person may feel if they are so desperate they want to kill.

Loneliness and social isolation are also becoming routine in my conversations with patients (regardless of gender). We are more “connected” than ever before; nearly every US household has access to the internet or owns a smartphone. Teens spend hours on social media and text hundreds of times per day with friends. Social media brings many benefits: access to online education, remaining in touch with friends and family who are not local, and allowing an outlet to express emotion in an anonymous way. Yet, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among teens (second to motor vehicles). Is there a correlation between depression and online use?

Research (*) does show some clues. Depressed teens are more likely to have displays of depression on social media. At the same time, depressed teens are open to adults asking them about those displays in person. I now ask every patient about cyberbullying and online harassment. More and more teens report social anxiety and isolation. Our virtual connections seem to be taking the place of much needed human interaction. Of course, this too is complicated. Are teens spending less time ‘with’ each other because there are fewer opportunities or are they spending less time with each other because they can easily talk via the comfort of home (on their phone or tablet)? Cuts to school budgets lead to fewer extracurricular activities; 2 parent working households may mean teens don’t have opportunities to be driven to friend’s homes or spend time in community activities; more school assignments online can lead to less face to face study groups, etc. Of course teens aren’t the only ones leading virtual lives (I can’t tell you the number of times I have to ask parents to put away their phones in clinic visits with me), but they are the first generation to grow up without a memory of life without social media.

So what advice can I offer to parents regarding raising teens who know how to have close friendships, strong social connection, and feel like they are not alone?

• Foster face-to-face connection. Encourage participation in activities outside of the home. This includes sports, clubs, community events, youth groups, a place of worship, or simply spending in-person time with friends & family. Do invite your teen to have their friends come over for dinner or a family movie night. Do attend their extracurricular events (my parents attended every concert, recital, and sporting event for all 4 of me and my siblings).
• Be an example of a good friend. Reach out if you need support and offer to listen if someone needs a confidant. Then keep the trust but not sharing information unless someone is at risk of harm or given permission.
• Show it is ‘ok’ to have a full range of emotions. My Dad and I had differing views on politics, but one thing he showed me (and my sister & 2 brothers) was that it is absolutely ok to exhibit all emotions. He cried at every family gathering, expressed joy with each small accomplishment, and never missed an opportunity to give a hug and tell us he loved us.
• Have technology breaks. Turn off social media during critical family times like meals or family outings.
• If you’re worried, say something.

Interesting articles on this topic:

Have smartphones destroyed a generation? https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/

TheGoodMenProject :The terrible price of our epidemic of male loneliness

(*) Moreno, MA; Jelenchick, LA; Egan, KG; Cox E; Young H; Gannon KE; Becker T. Feeling bad on Facebook: depression disclosures by college students on a social networking site. Depress Anxiety, 2011 June; 28(6): 447-55