In his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” published in 1967, Gabriel GarcÍa Márquez wrote that “tribes condemned to a hundred years of solitude have no second chance on earth.” They have no second chance because loneliness isolates and contains the past. It causes stagnation and closes the door to the future.
Loneliness has always existed. However, this does not change the fact that the current times are exceptionally conducive to this phenomenon. The increasing pace of life and the weakening of social ties means that the “tribe doomed to loneliness” is growing ever larger. Every year, more and more people – especially young people – are struggling with loneliness.
The coronavirus pandemic and the long-term isolation that came with it have significantly exacerbated the phenomenon of loneliness. It has become, as it were, a parallel epidemic, which, however, unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, is not the focus of such intense attention from the authorities. Meanwhile, in young people, who are at a crucial stage in the development of their personality, interpersonal relationships and key social competencies, it poses a very serious threat.
The concept of loneliness
In the literature, loneliness is sometimes defined as: “an unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relationships is in some significant way – i.e. quantitatively or qualitatively – inadequate” or as “the perception of a discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual network of relationships”. Thus, it is possible that a person surrounded by a wide circle of acquaintances will feel more lonely than a person with few people around him, but with stronger ties to them.
Loneliness can be a chronic or temporary phenomenon. According to research, the sources of loneliness are half hereditary and half environmental. The factor that distinguishes loneliness from the longing or emptiness associated with the absence of a specific person is the feeling of being unwanted, unnoticed or rejected by the environment in general. Moreover, the feeling of loneliness is subjective in nature. Therefore, it is not the same phenomenon as social isolation, defined as the objective absence or very few relationships with other people.
Physical and psychological consequences of the phenomenon of loneliness
As research indicates, feelings of loneliness have a noticeable correlation with premature mortality and a wide range of serious physical and emotional problems, such as heart disease, depression (lonely people are 7 times more likely to show symptoms of moderate or severe depression), anxiety, personality disorders, psychosis, obesity, alcohol or substance abuse or domestic violence. It is worth mentioning, however, that the direction of causality between loneliness and the aforementioned mental conditions – depression in particular – is not clear. Instead, we know that the relationship between loneliness and depression is non-additive reinforcing in nature.
Given that loneliness afflicts young people at a crucial stage of their life development, loneliness also strongly affects the development of their personality, leading to a decrease in cognitive function, and thus a lower chance of getting a good education and satisfying employment, and consequently an increased risk of unemployment and financial problems. Therefore, even social isolation of a temporary nature can cause long-lasting and difficult-to-remove effects.
Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the prevalence of loneliness among young people
Many studies show that young people are the most vulnerable to loneliness caused by the pandemic. Research conducted as part of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project in 2020 found that as many as 61% of respondents aged 18-25 complained of “severe loneliness,” i.e., loneliness that they felt frequently or almost constantly in the 4 weeks preceding participation in the survey. In contrast, 43% of respondents in this age group believe they have felt even more lonely since the pandemic broke out. In 63% of respondents, the problem of loneliness occurs together with depression or anxiety. According to the study, the feeling of loneliness during the pandemic increased more strongly in unemployed people. In contrast, it does not show a clear relationship with issues such as gender, place of residence, education or material status.
Lonely young people are furthermore much more likely to lack basic forms of human attention and emotional support. Some 50% of young respondents said that in the past few weeks no one had taken more than a few minutes to ask them how they were doing, but in a way that made them feel that the person asking “really cared.” 21% of single young people responded that they have no people in their lives who regularly ask them about things that are important to them, and 14% said they have no one outside their family who cares about them.
In EU countries, the situation looks similar. According to a study published in June 2020 by Kaspersky Computer Security Company, in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the so-called “Generation Z” (comprising people born between 1994 and 2001) was the loneliest age group in Europe – almost 70% of respondents in this age category felt lonely. In contrast, according to a survey conducted by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center between April 2020 and March 2021, during the first months of the pandemic (April-June 2020), the percentage of 18-25 year olds who reported feeling lonely nearly quadrupled (from 9% to 35%).
A study in Denmark found that during the pandemic, 1/10 of young people (aged 16-29) often or always felt lonely. In France, on the other hand, reports emerged that young people are twice as likely to feel lonely due to the constraints of the pandemic as those of the so-called “boomer” generation and that, as a result of the pandemic, an increasing number of university students are turning to the university for psychological or financial assistance. And in Italy, as many as 32% of respondents aged 18-34 said they often experience loneliness during a pandemic.
Consequences of isolation-induced loneliness for young people’s psycho-physical development
Such a significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people’s well-being is quite obviously due to the radical reduction – following the sanitary measures introduced – of young adults’ social contacts. Closed schools, universities, offices, and the lack of opportunities for larger group meetings mean that young people spend their time mainly in their own homes and do not develop their professional and social skills. Remote learning does not sufficiently compensate for these deficits. Moreover, it can even exacerbate feelings of loneliness among young people and increase stress levels. This, in turn, leads to the emergence or exacerbation in this age group of such conditions and phenomena as depression, insomnia, neurosis and addictions. For the above reasons, Generation Z is referred to in the media as the “lost generation”.
Interestingly, the opportunity to spend more time with family and the relatively wide access to electronic communications are not effective means for young people to reduce loneliness. On the contrary, the need to permanently stay with the family not infrequently leads to an increase in pathological phenomena. On the other hand, social media, on the one hand, allows you to make friends and communicate, but on the other hand, they expose young people to the phenomenon of hate speech and can negatively affect self-esteem.
Ways to counteract the phenomenon of youth loneliness during the pandemic
Clearly, there is no single simple solution to the problem of loneliness among the young. In fact, as the literature points out, our understanding of the causes and ways to prevent loneliness in general is still very limited. Moreover, in the era of pandemics, the fight against loneliness is particularly difficult given the need to maintain sanitary restrictions. Nevertheless, two basic paths can be identified to combat loneliness.
First, it is necessary to develop public education campaigns that provide young people with information on the causes of loneliness, its effects on health, and coping strategies, consisting in particular of reducing negative perceptions of the world and developing cognitive skills. It is also important to widely inform young people as to the possibility of obtaining professional psychological or psychiatric support. Particular responsibility in this regard lies with teachers and general practitioners, who – due to their contact with the young even during the pandemic – are in a position to notice possible abnormalities relatively quickly and indicate or apply effective measures to help.
Second, since loneliness is a social phenomenon, it requires a social response. Therefore, measures aimed at changing the social perception of loneliness are very important. It is necessary to talk about the prevalence of this phenomenon among young people, its causes and manifestations. Without underestimating the importance of measures to combat the pandemic, it is necessary to make various social groups aware of the importance of social contacts and human ties, and for both mental and physical health.
The phenomenon of loneliness affects all social groups. Similarly, all social groups are affected by the intensification of this phenomenon in the wake of the pandemic. Nevertheless, as research shows, young people are the group most severely affected by loneliness during a pandemic. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the isolation enforced by the pandemic affected Generation Z at a period that is the most critical for the development of their personality and social competence. On the other hand, the pandemic deprived or significantly reduced the basic forms of social contacts of young people, such as school, university, extracurricular activities or meetings with peers.
The phenomenon of loneliness among the young can and should be prevented. It should also be fought against. In this regard, macro-level activities, such as educational campaigns aimed at the general public, for example, cannot be overestimated. At least as important, however, is the individual support given to each other. It is therefore worth asking ourselves how much we notice the people around us, how much attention we pay to them. In the daily rush, are we able to notice that someone around us feels lonely? It may be worthwhile to speak up to someone we think may be lonely, or to someone we haven’t heard from in a long time. The loneliness pandemic doesn’t have to last a hundred years.
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