Earlier this year, YouGov published an article citing data that Millennials feel lonely much more than Generation X or Baby Boomers. According to their findings, 30% percent of Millennials say they always or often feel lonely, compared to 20% of Gen X and 15% of Baby Boomers. Two of our therapists–Jordan Conrad and Emily Stuart–respond to the article with a conversation:
Jordan Conrad: I really liked this article, which gestures to how society is reshaping itself and relationships through social media, online gaming, and chat forums like Reddit. What I find the most interesting is not so much that Millennials and Internet natives are the loneliest generation, but that it is supposed to be a surprising finding. It seems to me that the older generations feel that it is paradoxical that with more interaction opportunities or venues to exchange ideas, more relationships aren’t forming.
But, I think that those who struggle with making connections generally certainly aren’t fairing any better with more social media use. Social media is not the panacea people hoped it would be. There is a desire for people to find a place for themselves that they aren’t getting elsewhere, but the connections they make online–while real and sometimes very intimate–don’t translate well IRL. In my therapy practice, I see patients sometimes feel frustrated that the only place they feel accepted or taken seriously is online, and feel more and more alienated at school or that it’s harder and harder to make friends. On the other hand, many of the Millennials I work with feel social media is a supplement to their lives–an opportunity to organize public events, find out about new things to do, and share these things with other people.
Emily Stuart: I agree that it can hugely vary. Social media has its problems, but there are many ways it’s working for people as well–connecting, organizing, dating, activism, etc. However, having hundreds of friends on Instagram or Facebook is by no means a measure of true human connectedness. I can see how more screen and social media time often translates to less in-person time, which is how meaningful relationships form. That being said, I don’t think I can definitively say that in my practice or life I’ve found younger generations to be lonelier. People, no matter their age, come into therapy because something isn’t working in their lives, and often connection, intimacy and loneliness play a large role in that.
Another piece of this loneliness may come from being inundated by all the beautiful, happy, exciting (read: curated) lives happening all the time around you on social media. Social media sets people up for constant comparison, which is itself isolating and lonely.
Jordan Conrad: I don’t know if I would go so far as to say in-person time is definitely how meaningful relationships form, though I think part of the loneliness can be attributed to that, as well as the comparison aspect. I think the point you hit on the head is that so much of social media is curated, which I think has two interesting components: the first is that so much of what is presented is designed to be presented. People are beautiful, their lives are amazing, their apartments are clean, etc. But the other end of it is that, with certain areas excluded, conversations seem to be two one-way conversations, rather than one two-way conversation. Communication on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook seems to happen by people telling others about themselves. There’s no question and answer, just answer.
Emily Stuart: To me, what’s interesting about the finding is less that social media use isn’t leading to more relationships, and more that we are, in fact, seeing the opposite effect: loneliness. The article cites other well-known findings that there’s a link between social media use and depression, and I think the curation of perfection and breeding ground for comparison are important pieces of that. “Here’s how happy, fulfilled, and beautiful I am. (How about you)?” I love that you pointed out that it’s a one-way, not a two-way, conversation on social media. Is it true interaction if it’s mostly one-sided? If social media is a bunch of half-conversations, how lonely is that?
I also think especially for young people, there’s also a sense of “Here’s what you’re missing out on” (Classic FOMO). And this brings me to one of my initial thoughts about the article: there’s a tendency to still relate to Millennials as the young generation of technology, the Internet and social media. But, more Millennials straddle this movement and did a good chunk of growing up before widespread use of the Internet, cellphones, social media, etc. Generation Z grew up completely immersed in this environment and use social media very differently even though Millennials are only a few years older. If we think social media and the Internet play a big role in loneliness, then presumably Gen Z, not Millennials, would be the loneliest generation.
Jordan Conrad: I think there is a temptation, one that you and I have slipped into, to focus on the influence of social media that may have played on loneliness in Millennials. I’m curious if you think there’s something else at work here.
Emily Stuart: That’s a good point! And the article clearly does too. The first sentence is, “The social media generation is the one that feels most alone,” even though the findings are about loneliness more broadly and not about social media. I’m thinking about the current sociopolitical climate, and wondering if there are ways it might be affecting Millennials in a different way.
Jordan Conrad: To me, one thing that feels particularly salient is that Millennials continue to be told that they are the problem, and that their problem is social media. There are dozens of articles that claim that Millennials are “killing” various industries (everything from napkins and golf to homeownership and diamonds), that they are too sensitive, that they are ruining politics and academia, seemingly without any acknowledgement of the role the older generations play in this. Millennials have inherited a pretty difficult situation. It’s not that I don’t think that social media is in play here, just that it seems that Millennials get it from both ends. On the one hand, many of them came of working age during a recession they didn’t cause, in an environmental crisis they didn’t cause, and in a politically volatile era they didn’t cause. On the other hand, they get blamed for not working hard enough, for caring too much about sharing economies, and for being politically reactive. What surprise, then, that they feel alienated and alone. What surprise that they find solace on social media?
Emily Stuart: I hadn’t connected this familiar barrage of criticism Millennials face as specifically related to loneliness–but of course it’s deeply alienating. And let’s not forget that within this context, Millennials–facing a huge amount of pressure as kids to succeed, be involved, get into the best college, etc.–are nonetheless also the first generation that by and large is growing up to make less than their parents did. As you pointed out, they inherited economic, political, and environmental crises, while also being told they’re lazy and have to work harder, and ultimately they’ll have much less to show for it. No wonder they find solace in social media indeed.
I agree that it seems too easy to blame social media, which may stand out at first as the obvious new development affecting this generation in a different way than its predecessors when there is so much else at play. Social media could be a symptom of loneliness, not the cause (but then it may also serve to exacerbate that loneliness).