Tech Can Be Used to Address Loneliness in Young People
Exploring another impact of the pandemic: Protecting today’s young and lonely
Posted Aug 19, 2020
Throughout the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, I have been using the mantra “we’re all in this together.” I’m using it in my conversations, Zoom calls, and gathered around the table with my family. I’m finding it helpful to connect this unprecedented time of distancing with the knowledge that this is a collective global experience. While our day-to-day challenges may differ, we are truly all in this weird, unsettling time together..
Interestingly, COVID-19 has not made us more lonely, but young adults are still at risk.
First, the good news: It looks like Americans overall are not more lonely as a result of the pandemic. In a study that surveyed 1545 Americans aged 19 to 98 over three time points between late January and late April 2020, researchers found that loneliness did not increase over that period. Even better, respondents reported feeling more support from others during that time. I’m heartened to see a moment of solidarity at the start of the pandemic that protected many from spikes in loneliness. The challenge remains to preserve this belief as the crisis stretches out over the year.
The not-so-great news is that young people didn’t fare as well, and remain the loneliest group today. A recent Centers for Disease Control survey showed that 75% of young adults reported they had at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom during COVID-19. In this study, as well as a number of others, younger people report being lonelier than even older adults, who are often thought to be most lonely. Reports show that fewer than 10% of older adults report severe loneliness, whereas 20-48% of adolescents and young adults report severe levels of loneliness. What’s more, younger adults show more problems associated with feeling lonely compared to middle-aged and older adults—depression and anxiety symptoms, sleep disturbances, physical health problems, and even suicidality. The problem is dire and compounded by missed opportunities for connection due to remote schooling, stay-at-home orders, lost jobs, and general global instability.
What can we do about loneliness among the young?
There is hope to address loneliness among young adults. A meta-analysis published online in May 2020 reviewed 39 studies that looked at interventions for lonely young people. A majority of the interventions reviewed were delivered in groups to young people who were identified as “at-risk” for loneliness (e.g., people with a life-threatening illness). They taught skills related to making and improving social interactions such as effective communication, and helped people processing thoughts and feelings about those interactions. The authors found that interventions for loneliness were generally helpful: Young people who went through programs to address loneliness generally became less lonely after participation.
Using technology as a powerful solution to address loneliness
Technology is likely to be an important part of a widespread solution that addresses loneliness among the young. A 2017 review by Nowland, Necka, and Capioppo found that, though the internet can contribute to loneliness when it replaces offline relationships, when used appropriately it can have the opposite impact of enhancing those same relationships. This may help to explain why we are not a lonelier society as a result of COVID-19—there have been so many efforts to enhance our existing relationships via calls and chats—many of which we were too busy to have before.
The meta-analysis I mentioned above also found that technology can be a useful way to deliver interventions for those who are at high risk for loneliness: The four studies that used technology to deliver the interventions were as effective as the in-person interventions. If we use technology to help young people enhance their offline relationships and forge new ones, we can protect against the worst effects of loneliness, even in the middle of a pandemic.
What Can We Do to Help?
The meta-analysis suggests some simple ways we can use technology now to support young people feeling less lonely.
Foster Current Relationships. There are so many great ways to use technology to enhance connections young people already have. Making a plan for a weekly video call, Houseparty game, or a voice note telling a friend how much they value them can help teens foster feelings of connection and keep current relationships strong so it becomes about physical distancing, not social distancing.
Form New Relationships. Using technology to make safe offline connections for young people is possible. Technology can be used to meet new people in a supported environment in which people have a shared experience. Examples include asking someone new from a college class to study together (masked and/or distanced if necessary) or sending someone a note after you meet to follow-up on something they said they liked. These are the kinds of prompts users find in supportive apps like Nod, created by Hopelab and Grit Digital Health. [NOTE: COVID-19 has not changed the risks of meeting in person people only known from online sites. Families should discuss the risks and make sure that any real-life interactions are known and chaperoned, especially for those young enough to live at home.]
If used the right way, technology has the promise to prevent us from becoming a lonely culture during the pandemic, especially for teens and young adults—a generation at greatest risk of falling further into a culture of loneliness. Perhaps technology can help further foster the mindset that “We’re all in this together,” which is exactly what we all need to hear right now, over and over again.
Eccles, A.M., & Qualter, P. (2020). Review: Alleviating loneliness in young people - a meta-analysis of interventions. Child Adolesc Ment Health, epub ahead of print. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12389.
Luchetti, M. et al. (2020). The Trajectory of Loneliness in Response to COVID-19. American Psychologist, epub ahead of print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000690.
Nowland, R., Necka, E. A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2018). Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 70–87. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617713052
Victor, C. R., & Bowling, A. (2012). A longitudinal analysis of loneliness among older people in Great Britain. Journal of Psychology, 146, 313–331. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.609572
Williams, S. E., & Braun, B. (2019). Loneliness and social isolation—A private problem, a public issue. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 111, 7–14. https://doi.org/10.14307/JFCS111.1.7