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Bridging The Gap: Why Loneliness Matters

By Trip Starkey & Nathaan Demers, Psy.D., 9/27/2021

Originally posted on See original article>

You’ve likely experienced it at some point in your life: sitting around all day with nothing to do, staring at a screen’s cold glow, trying to scroll away boredom while wishing someone would ask you to get out and do something. In these moments, it is often easy to feel alone, as if the weight of isolation has negated the ability to connect with anyone in a meaningful way. For many in Gen-Z, these feelings of isolation are not just fleeting experiences but have, unfortunately, become the norm. With the influx of apps designed to put our social interactions in the digital realm, many young adults are getting fewer and fewer opportunities to build sincere relationships. When you factor in a global pandemic that saw much of the world in forced isolation, for many young adults, creating and maintaining meaningful relationships has felt like an impossible task.

At present, combating loneliness and social isolation appears to be an uphill battle for students and administrators alike. Prior to the pandemic, Cigna data published in 2020 showed that 49.9% of 18 to 22 year olds endorsed feelings of loneliness, and data published by the American College Health Association in 2019 reported 67% of students surveyed feeling very lonely in the previous year. All of this data has been exacerbated by COVID-19 as schools have been forced to pivot to remote and hybrid learning environments, which saw students and faculty become even more isolated. Now, as schools continue to navigate fallout from the pandemic, and start heading back to in-person learning, things remain uncertain. An August 2021 survey of YOU at College partner schools saw 79.6% of students endorsing loneliness as a challenge, with 53.4% of students having concern about building relationships after they returned to campus. 

So what does all of this mean for institutions of higher education? To start, it means that loneliness is a growing issue for college-aged students and they are looking to their institutions for help. In order to effectively address something, it must be accurately defined. For institutions, it is important to avoid simply perceiving loneliness as a lack of friendships or relationships, but instead recognize it as the gap between the relationships students want and the relationships they perceive themselves to have. This definition is essential because a student who has 2-3 close friends they can turn to for support may consciously choose to spend much of their time alone and not feel lonely. Conversely, the star quarterback who is supposedly beloved by the entire campus may experience loneliness if they feel they are lacking quality relationships. Why is this so important? Students experiencing loneliness are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, substance use, poor sleep quality, dropping out, and suicidal ideation. The aim, then, is for institutions to effectively address loneliness before it becomes something more by finding avenues that can close that gap and help students build the skills necessary to create meaningful connections.

Students are not naive. They see every marketing brochure, advertisement, movie, and television show portraying college as the best four years of their lives. They are trained to believe that, from the moment they step foot on campus, friendships will come easily and they will magically get their life-long best friends. What data, trends, and students themselves tell us, however, is that this is simply not the case. These students are digital natives, which means they are the first generation that has had to confront the true nature of the loneliness gap in this manner, and their unique circumstances have caused them to miss out on developing many of the necessary skills for social success.

On top of all of that, with an increasing number of social media platforms designed to “help people connect” and the pandemic-caused isolation, young adults are losing their ability to connect with one another in a sincere way. Many online interactions are superficial, designed for building engagement as opposed to building relationships, and students are left trying to piece together fragmented friendships. However, it is key to note that not all technology is bad, but we must be mindful of how we use technology. We can use it to simply like and share photos, or we can use it to meaningfully connect, actively listen, and provide or receive support. What young adults desperately need are digital tools that not only provide them with reflective spaces to process their interactions in a healthy way, but also assist them in building tangible, practical skills to navigate their loneliness and create the relationships they crave. 

With this in mind, the best way for institutions of higher education to tackle loneliness is to understand it, address its root cause, and provide tools that help students break the cycle of disconnection and start building healthy habits. Apps like Nod, which leverage technology to shift social interactions back into the real world, are effective in providing evidence-based practices for social skill building while meeting the desired outcome of curbing loneliness and depression in students. As awareness grows around the loneliness epidemic, and students continue looking for ways to combat it, now is the time to invest in tools and resources that can carve out space for those desired connections and create more cohesive campus communities.

mental health
student support