Harvard’s Making Caring Common Study Finds Teens and Young Adults Are Increasingly Lonely

Our teens and young adults are lonely and a new survey by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, reveals just how endemic the feeling of isolation is and how it has spread during the past year. Even before the social distancing that exacerbated feelings of being alone, young people have been more susceptible to loneliness than older adults.  

The report notes that one problem may be aggravating a second one, “…developmental psychologist Niobe Way puts it: ‘We are in danger of alleviating one public health problem — the transmission of disease — while exacerbating another.’”

Woman looking out window
Our teens and young adults are lonely. (Photo by Felipe Cespedes from Pexels)

After a year of being “virtual” our teens and young adults are lonely

But after a year of online learning for many, and life in their childhood bedroom rather than their own apartment or dorm room, feelings of loneliness have grown among the young. Experiencing loneliness is certainly sad, but it is also a risk factor for other problems including substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.

The CDC found that 63% of 18-24-year-olds were suffering from  “symptoms of anxiety or depression that they attributed to the pandemic and nearly a quarter had started or increased their abuse of substances, including alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs, to cope with their emotions.”

Grown and Flown Parents have reported that their teens and young adults have increased their use of vapes and marijuana while stuck at home and that loneliness is the most often the reason given by the young person for these changing behaviors. Parents explain that their students are struggling to perform their schoolwork at the level they once did and that self-motivation has declined with the isolation of the online classroom. We hear about lethargy, boredom, and depression brought on by teens’ and young adults’ very limited social interaction.

Report from Making Caring Common says young people are particularly vulnerable

A new report from Making Caring Common entitled “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It” reveals that young people are at particular risk.

We draw particular attention to young adult’s loneliness. Young adults are far more likely not only to be lonely but to suffer anxiety and depression (see here), and depression and loneliness can brutally compound each other (see here and here). Forty-three percent of young adults in our survey reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.

the report’s authors explain. 

About half of the young people in the study who said they had felt lonely explained that over the past weeks, not one person had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they were faring or made them feel as if they had someone who “genuinely cared.” 

Loneliness among young adults may be exacerbated by their online lives. While during the pandemic, social media may be a way to keep in touch with friends and family they don’t see, it can easily make them feel like they are missing out and that others are living a fuller social life while they are sidelined with pandemic restrictions.

Young people depend on social media and peer approval, making them emotionally vulnerable

Making Caring Common explains,

Compounding matters, young people tend to be especially dependent both on social media and on peer norms and peer approval, making them particularly vulnerable to social media’s harms, including the production of false selves, the deluge of people enjoying others’ company, and ostracism and bullying.

Sian Leah Beilock, the president of Barnard College, suggests that the declining number of close friends, those with whom we can share confidences, may explain some of the feelings of loneliness. She reports that in 1985 the average American had 3 close friends with whom they could share important things about their lives. By 2004 that number had declined to just two friends. And by 2019, data showed, “that one in five millennials have no friends at all.” 

Making Caring Common suggests how, as a nation, we can ameliorate loneliness and the health and psychological risks it poses.

First, through a three-pronged approach, they offer a public education campaign that equips people with strategies to help manage loneliness and emerge from it.

Second, their report urges us to focus on those institutions in our society that foster meaningful connections between citizens and support them. 

Lastly, the report’s authors suggest we restore our commitment to each other as a society, moving our focus away from the self toward the collective with an emphasis on our responsibility towards each other.

“These levels of loneliness are heartbreaking. We have big holes in our social fabric,” said Richard Weissbourd, lead author of the report, faculty director of Making Caring Common, and Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School. “We need to mobilize coherently and strategically to assure that far fewer Americans are stranded and disconnected.”

To read further please see:

Loneliness in America: How the pandemic has deepened an epidemic of loneliness and what we can do about it

The report is based on an online survey of approximately 950 Americans in October 2020.

About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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