Our Loneliness Is Now A Serious Health Problem, And Here’s Why

 Feeling lonely? You're far from alone.

Feeling lonely? You're far from alone.

Experts have found loneliness is more widespread and dangerous than we thought, and it's only poised to get worse.

It’s the great paradox of our time: Via our smartphones and the wonders of the internet, we’re more "connected" to the world than ever. Yet we're also becoming more isolated and lonely than ever, and it has the potential to seriously affect our health.

Research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association earlier this month put forth the notion that loneliness and social isolation may present a greater public health hazard than obesity-related health problems, and it’s effecting a huge portion of our population.

According to AARP’s Loneliness Study, approximately 42.6 million adults over the age of 45 in the US are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” said Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in a statement.

Holt-Lunstad presented data from 148 studies representing more than 300,000 participants, which found that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.

Additionally, researchers from 70 studies representing more than 3.4 million individuals from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia found that social isolation, loneliness and living alone had a significant and equal, or greater, effect on the risk of premature death as obesity-related health issues. 

And according to Holt-Lunstad, things are only poised to become more dire: “The effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”

And while the study focuses on the widespread and dangerous loneliness experienced by an older demographic, the situation appears poised to get even worse for the device-addicted younger generation.

In an article for The Atlantic earlier this week, psychologist Jean Twenge laid out disturbing statistics for what she’s dubbed the “iGen”—those born between 1995 and 2012, who have essentially grown up with access to smartphones. 

Rates of teen suicide and depression have skyrocketed; those who reported having a major depressive episode within the last 12 months increased by 37 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to a study published last year. And while Twenge is careful to note that depression and suicide have many causes, the timing cannot be ignored. 

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” she writes, and this is in part due to self-imposed isolation via constant smartphone use.

High-school seniors in 2015 were going out less often than eighth graders did in 2009, and only 56 percent of seniors went out on dates in 2015, in contrast with 85 percent of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Teenagers are significantly less eager to get their drivers’ license, and they’re increasingly content to spend time at home.

All of which may seem like a positive for parents, on the surface. But Twenge argues that a near-constant state of teenagers living their social lives out on their phones is extremely dangerous; citing the Monitoring the Future survey that has assessed high-school seniors since 1975, she says the results are clear:

“Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”

All of which is to say: Loneliness is more widespread and dangerous than we previously thought. And by inflicting even more loneliness on ourselves via excessive “connectedness,” the potential for damage to our wellbeing can't really be ignored.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or just want to talk to someone, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Words: Deena Drewis
Photos: Daria Kobayashi Ritch