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Loneliness in Young Adults: A Growing Mental Health Issue

Recent reports indicate that young adults have very high rates of loneliness.

There is growing recognition among researchers and policy-makers that loneliness is a social and health issue of significant public importance.

For example, the UK government appointed its first-ever "Minister for Loneliness" in 2018, which led to an 84-page national "Strategy for Tackling Loneliness." This has prompted exciting new research initiatives, including the creation of a government-funded Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Network, based at University College London.

Thankfully, loneliness is now on the public agenda, with concomitant research examining causes, consequences and interventions.

What Are the Rates of Loneliness?

In the last year, two large U.S. surveys have examined rates of loneliness in the general population. These surveys have produced somewhat surprising results about who is most affected.

In 2019, YouGov surveyed over 1,000 U.S. adults, asking questions about loneliness and social isolation. Interestingly, this survey found that 29 percent of millennials always or often felt lonely and 27 percent had no close friends. In contrast, baby boomers had lower rates of loneliness, with only 15 percent always or often feeling lonely and only 16 percent stating that they had no close friends.

Of note, the results indicated that men felt lonely more often than women, with 23 percent of men always or often feeling lonely compared to 20 percent of women.

Similarly, Cigna's 2020 Loneliness Survey of over 10,000 U.S. adults was released this month, indicating that young adults have higher rates of loneliness than older adults. This survey indicated that over 70 percent of young adults reported sometimes or always feeling alone, shy, or that no one really understands them. These figures were much lower in older adults.

Again, this survey found higher rates of loneliness in men compared to women, with 63 percent of men having a high loneliness score (as defined by the UCLA loneliness scale) compared to 58 percent of women.

In sum, young adults tend to experience loneliness more frequently than older adults, with young men particularly affected.

The Role of Social Media

Several factors may affect these high rates of loneliness in young adults. Perhaps the most prominent is the heavy usage of social media in this demographic.

Importantly, a growing number of studies indicate that the use of social media can exacerbate loneliness and worsen mental health. For example, one recent study found that heavy social media users are three times more likely to be depressed than occasional users.

Similarly, another recent study found that undergraduates who limited social media use to 30 minutes per day had a significant reduction in loneliness and depressive symptoms compared to a control group. In other words, social media can be bad for your mental health.

Interestingly, most people recognize this as a growing mental health issue. For example, a recent report found that 58 percent of Americans view the increasing usage of social media and associated technologies as a major reason for increasing loneliness, further suggesting that this is an area for action.

Relationships and Family Structure

Also affecting loneliness in young adults may be wider social changes related to the family and relationships. For example, the average age of first marriage has increased dramatically in the U.S., with recent statistics indicating that only 29 percent of Americans age 18 to 34 were married in 2018 compared with 59 percent in 1978.

In contrast, Richard McAnulty of the University of North Carolina writes that "serial monogamy is the primary sexual script for young adults," while other research suggests a high-rate of "hooking-up." This means that many young adults are frequently exposed to a merry-go-round of relationships, involving regular romantic break-ups interspersed with periods of singledom and casual hook-ups.

Some research has linked this "hook-up" based lifestyle to increased feelings of loneliness and depressive symptoms. Similarly, romantic break-up has been identified as a risk factor for adverse mental health outcomes, as it can lead to a loss of social and emotional support and a concomitant increase in loneliness among young adults affected.

Such a situation may be exacerbated by divorce in older adults, with recent statistics indicating a divorce rate of over 40 percent in the U.S. This means that young adults may lack the ontological security of a stable parental home, which has been shown to buffer the impact of such adverse events.

Wider Social Changes

The work of Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam indicates a precipitous decline in organizational membership across the United States and beyond. This decline manifests itself in various arenas, including lower rates of church attendance, trade union membership and involvement in fraternal organizations. The U.S. may no longer be a "nation of joiners."

This has been matched by a decrease in informal socializing. In a now-famous example, Putnam himself documents how more and more people are "bowling alone" in U.S. bowling alleys. In the UK, the local pub often acted as a hub for neighbourhood life, but recent statistics indicate that these are closing at a rate of around 14 per week, leaving fewer communal spaces.

This is concerning as considerable research indicates that people embedded in community or familial networks tend to have lower rates of adverse mental health outcomes compared to those who are isolated. For example, several studies indicate that loneliness can be a risk factor for depression, as well as a barrier to recovery for those with a mental illness.

Indeed, a recent survey indicates that around 60 percent of people say that their loneliness has had a negative impact on their mental health. All of this is a call for action to address loneliness among young people.

What Can Be Done?

The amassed research indicates that young adults, particularly young men, are vulnerable to high levels of loneliness, which can have a detrimental impact on their mental health. This suggests several areas for age-appropriate action and intervention.

First, young adults have grown up in a social media age. Some may not have fully developed their social skills or acquired the necessary personal competencies to successfully socialize and make friends. This implies a need for tailored social skills training and personal development courses.

Second, numerous studies link social media usage to loneliness, depression, and poor mental health. This is not common knowledge, and young adults should be made aware of this research and encouraged to disconnect from social media to focus on real-world interaction.

Third, every neighbourhood and district has a number of preexisting communities that can be accessed by young adults in need of social connectivity. This can include churches, trade unions, and fraternal bodies. Leaders of such communities may consider launching youth-specific initiatives that can better engage young people with these communities.

Young adults have typically been overlooked in debates about loneliness and its reduction. However they are a vulnerable demographic, and further action is necessary to help address this important health and social issue.