- People in the U.S. are reporting unprecedented levels of loneliness.
- Social support and meaningful daily interactions are key to reducing loneliness.
- Most children and teens went from arranged play dates to current conditions without learning to arrange for in-person get togethers.
- Parents can help children overcome their initial reluctance and learn the skills to build real friendships.
I recently read an article by the Surgeon General of the United States about the epidemic of loneliness in the United States. He began by talking about his own growing isolation. He had focused on his work, neglecting old friends. His job was isolating, cutting him off from colleagues and collaborators. And when he felt the pull to reconnect, he was embarrassed at dropping friends, so was afraid to reach out.
Let me tell you about my own journey. I was a nerdy teenager. I walked through the hallways of my middle school, feeling invisible. I wasn’t teased or bullied—I was just alone.
The month before starting high school, I went to a dance convention in New York City. What changed my life was asking the housekeeper for toilet paper. We were out—and she just gave it to me. Of course she did; that was her job.
But that experience was incredibly liberating for me—an epiphany. It told me she didn’t mind if I talked to her. I wasn’t bothering her. She even smiled when I thanked her. She acted just like me.
I went back and started high school. The halls were filled with kids whose faces I knew and others who were new to me. And I said “hi.” And smiled. People smiled back. In fact, lots of people—even people I thought of as "popular" and "nice" looked surprised and happy when I said "hi."
Because just like me, they were happy and flattered when people noticed them. One of the consequences of my making that observation was saying “hi” to the guy who sat in front of me in English class—who eventually became my husband.
Two things about this story are important. The first is my anxiety that reaching out and saying "hi" would lead to rejection. The second was learning that other people felt the same way I did—happy to be noticed and liked. I think both are relevant to loneliness today.
Kids and Social Media
The main way that children and adolescents connect with one another is through social media. One of the attractions of social media is that, in the short term, it makes us feel less lonely. We make connections with other folks. We make small gestures of approval to them—liking their posts—and feel connected. We make our own posts and hope that other people will notice us, too.
These gestures are similar in effect to walking through crowds. They let us see other people, which can make us feel less alone. But they can also make us feel more isolated because the connections are superficial rather than deep. (I want to note that people—including myself—have made deep meaningful connections with a small number of people through social media. However, that is qualitatively different than forming many shallow connections that tend to dominate our social media experiences.)
Around half of Americans, across all demographics, are lonely right now. Adolescents are experiencing a perhaps unprecedented mental health crisis, reporting startling levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidality. Although the pandemic made it worse, it started in 2012—about the same time that pervasive social media use became the norm for American teens.
Building Stronger Ties
Social scientists distinguish between strong and weak social ties. Weak ties are those with the many casual acquaintances we have—an administrative assistant we work with, someone we see at the coffee break after church, or a neighbor we chat with at the dog park.
Weak ties tend to be less similar to us than our close friends and family. They are particularly helpful if we are trying to find out information or make connections to resources that we don’t already have. Networking is about building weak ties.
Social media ties to broad groups of people extend our connections to weak ties. For example, my youngest son lives with severe chronic pain. The parents in my social media network have provided me with invaluable information to help my son that I would not be able to access through my close friends.
Those types of ties do not decrease loneliness on their own, however. They need to be strengthened into strong ties. Loneliness declines when we spend time with strong ties. Strong ties are those with people we see often, know well, and can count on: our family and friends.
Loneliness decreases when we have more social support—we talk to people about our problems and people listen and respond. It also decreases when we have “meaningful daily interactions” with folks. In other words, we are less lonely when we spend time with people doing things and listening to one another. The most meaningful interactions are those that happen on a regular, ongoing basis.
COVID Disrupted Naturally Occurring Social Patterns
Weak ties become strong ties when people spend enough regular time together and a) get to know enough about each other that they want to learn more, b) develop shared experiences, and c) initiate actions that increase their bond.
For example, people who work together decide to go out for lunch or have coffee. That time over coffee develops greater knowledge of each other and, if it was enjoyable, increases the likelihood that they will do it again.
For kids, daily contact in the classroom tended to lead to time together at lunch. Those conversations led to shared extracurricular activities, walking home together after school, or texting and time hanging out.
COVID broke those natural patterns. I don’t know if they’ve formed again—and rebuilding them will take conscious effort.
A concrete example: For ten years, my husband spent three or four hours every Saturday doing tai chi and drinking tea with a couple of guys. Often they went out to lunch and chatted both about their shared interest in the martial arts but also about politics, life, and family. That was a naturally occurring interaction that strengthened weak ties into strong ones.
COVID hit. Tai chi stopped. They didn’t see each other and emails trickled off. I knew my husband was lonely. A few months ago, I suggested he ask the guys out for lunch at their old stomping ground. It’s become a monthly ritual.
I know he feels less lonely. I suspect—since the other guys are initiating the invitations too—they all do. This is an example of consciously rebuilding a disrupted social interaction that had reduced loneliness.
Teenagers May Have Never Learned to Manage Their Own Networks
Most kids in elementary, middle, and even high school have never experienced the natural development of a social network. Think about it:
- Pre-COVID, their parents set up play dates.
- During COVID, they spent time online or in little bubbles.
- Post-COVID—wow. What happens next?
I wonder if most kids today haven’t been scaffolded through that process of going from parent-arranged to independent, naturally evolving social networks that involve face-to-face individual interactions. Or small groups of supportive friends doing things together. Instead, they went from play dates to texting and social media. Now that they are free to build positive strong networks that would reduce loneliness, they may not have the skills to do so.
As parents, maybe our job should be to help them fill in those gaps. Doing a family activity and having your child or teen invite a friend. Taking a son or daughter shopping or on a hike or to a museum and nudging them to ask a friend to come along (because, after all, who wants to spend time with your parents?). Inviting someone to dinner.
I suspect some kids will be reluctant. What if they ask someone and that person says no? Making an invitation always puts you at risk of rejection. I also suspect that they will discover—just like I did—that other kids are just as flattered and happy to be noticed as they are. They just need to be asked.
And each success may foster another. That’s how friendships work.