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The lonely land

Why are so many young people feeling so isolated? Is it because of smartphones, as the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims – or is something else going on?

By Sophie McBain

When schools closed and friendship went remote during the pandemic, the girls tried to reassure themselves that everything would be OK again once lockdown ended. They’d go out and party and do the normal, fun things that teenage girls should. They hadn’t anticipated how strange it would seem when they did go back to class, how they’d end up feeling guilty even when they weren’t breaking social distancing rules. “It was just this bizarre situation of a bunch of 14, 15, 16-year-olds plunged into lockdown, who can’t contact each other except by phone, and suddenly when we came out of it, it was like: ok, be normal humans again. But how can you do that?” said Naomi, who is now 18, and studying for her A-levels at a comprehensive in north-west England. “We’re a lost generation.”

Last year, the number of children and young people referred to mental health services reached a record high. NHS England figures show that in 2023, 20.8 per cent of women aged 17-19 had an eating disorder, up from 1.6 per cent in 2017. Among girls and young women, rates of hospital admissions for self-harm have also risen dramatically. (Among boys and young men rates of mental illness and self-harm have risen too, but not by as much.) The statistics tell only part of the story – start asking around and you’ll notice how rare it is to find a parent or teacher who isn’t deeply concerned about the teenage girls in their care, because so many seem anxious, unhappy and socially withdrawn.

The number of children who say they feel lonely at school more than doubled between 2012 and 2018, and Britons aged 16-29 are more than twice as likely to report feeling often or always lonely as those over 70. A report by the think tank Onward found that one in five Britons aged 18-24 have one or no close friends, a proportion that has tripled in the past decade. Historically, people’s social networks have tended to shrink with age, but nowadays young people have fewer friends than older Britons. The evidence from the UK and other Western countries suggests that Generation Z – those born after 1997 – isn’t just the loneliest cohort in the country, they may be the loneliest generation in human history.

I met Naomi and her schoolmates, Jasmine and Jocelyn, at a small online focus group I organised through their school to talk about this epidemic in youth loneliness. I had been speaking to experts in loneliness, reading scientific journals and think-tank reports and watching viral TikTok videos of pillowy-lipped influencers enumerating the “five signs of deep loneliness”. I wanted to test these ideas out not only with teenagers I knew felt lonely – those you might meet via loneliness charities, the teens posting about social isolation online – but with a more representative group. Why is being a teenager in 2024 such a lonely experience?

The experts had warned me that loneliness is a hidden driver of unhappiness and mental illness, a significant risk factor for suicide. It is a problem that is rarely spoken of unless you ask about it directly, at which point stories come tumbling out. I discovered as much when I spoke to the schoolgirls.

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Jasmine, 17, told me she had been profoundly lonely when her father suffered a major disabling stroke after contracting Covid before vaccines were available. She tried to talk to schoolfriends about it, but no one knew what to say. Naomi spoke of experiencing multiple chronic health problems unrelated to Covid. She spends a lot of time in hospital or at home recuperating. When people treated Covid as less serious because it mostly affected the old or already sick, she’d think: do you think my life is worth less than yours?

Some aspects of youth loneliness are neither new nor entirely avoidable. Bereavement and illness are lonely experiences, especially when your friends are too young to understand. The mass grief and toxic politics of the coronavirus era, as well as the hardship caused by years of austerity and a cost-of-living crisis, means that many more young people are suffering, and many feel alone in their pain.

But mostly the school students described the alienation of a life lived through social media, which can make you feel like you’re not really interacting with friends but with “robots”. Sometimes they wished they could log off, but they knew their friends would continue chatting without them and they’d only feel worse.

Loneliness is a relatively modern phenomenon, the cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti observes in her 2019 book, A Biography of Loneliness. Until the 1800s loneliness was most frequently used to describe places that were unfrequented or remote, and if it was used to describe a person loneliness was seen as interchangeable with “oneliness”, a word that simply meant being physically alone. Only later did loneliness move inwards to become an emotional state, a feeling you could experience – sometimes most acutely – in a roomful of people. This idea of loneliness emerged as faith in an omnipresent, paternalistic God receded in the Victorian era, and as society transitioned from an agrarian, face-to-face society to an urban, industrialised one, alongside the growth of individualism.

The simplest definition of loneliness is that it reflects a gap between an individual’s desired relationships and their actual ones, but loneliness can be linked to other forms of disconnection too: one recent study found that feeling your life lacks meaning is a stronger predictor of loneliness than feeling a lack of social connection. In other words, it may not only be rising individualism and social atomisation that creates lonely societies, but also declining faith, apathy and the loss of hope. Data analysis by the Financial Times shows that since 2010 there has been a sharp rise in the number of American teenagers who say they lack hope or their life is meaningless.

Although we often associate loneliness with old age, it has long followed a u-shaped curve, rising among the youngest as well as the oldest in society. That’s because loneliness is often linked to periods of transition and transformation: bereavement, retirement, leaving home or being left behind, forging a new identity. Loneliness can be the price we pay for freedom, the freedom of self-expression, reinvention, relocation. It can be “adaptive”, a useful response to change, when loneliness alerts us to a need to seek out social connection.

The problems begin when loneliness becomes chronic, at which point it can be self-fulfilling: lonely people are socially awkward, the University of Chicago loneliness researcher John Cacioppo observed, becoming either hyper-sensitive and quick to take offence or disconcertingly desperate and eager to please. Cacioppo, who died in 2018, was interested in how loneliness impacts physical health: studies have suggested that having poor social connections weakens a person’s immune system, making them more vulnerable to infection, and it leaves them at greater risk of suffering from a whole range of ailments, including heart disease and diabetes.

When we spoke on Zoom recently, Laurie Santos, the cognitive scientist who teaches Yale’s blockbuster Science of Well-being course, told me that when she started teaching at the university two decades ago, she’d step into lecture halls abuzz with student chatter and the college dining hall was “like, the loudest place ever”. Now both are almost silent. The students often sit with their headphones on and appear too absorbed in their work or their screens to speak to one another. When they do feel lonely, they reach for their phones to check social media or text a friend, something that offers “the NutraSweet of social connection: where it feels sweet, but we’re not getting the psychological nutritional benefit that we get from real-life connection”, she said. Her own anecdotal observations supported what is clear from the data: “This is the loneliest young people have been in the history of our species.”

Speaking to Santos I was reminded of a cover piece in the graduation edition of the Yale Daily News, “The Opposite of Loneliness”, that went viral in 2012 after its author, Marina Keegan, a promising recent graduate, was killed in a car accident. It described the feeling she had found at the university: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.” She sounded already nostalgic for the campus life she would soon leave behind: “that night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt.”

So what has happened at Yale, and indeed elsewhere, between the early 2010s and today? In his widely discussed book The Anxious Generation, the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the shift as “the Great Rewiring of Childhood”. Once smartphones became common and the internet became permanently accessible, he writes, children and adolescents spent ever less time socialising in real life and ever more time online, with girls more likely to be sucked into the self-esteem-destroying vortex of social media and boys more likely to become obsessive gamers or addicted to porn. British teenagers and young adults spend more time online than any other group, according to the UK telecoms and broadcast regulator Ofcom, with those aged 15-24 spending an average of over four and a half hours a day on the internet. They are also the most vulnerable to its harms, Haidt argues, as adolescence is a period of critical social and emotional development: consider all the things that teens stopped doing once they started spending almost five hours a day online. Together with the American psychologist Jean Twenge, Haidt has gathered exhaustive evidence to show that, having held steady for decades, almost every single measure of youth mental health – loneliness, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicide and self-harm – began to rise in the early 2010s, when smartphones became ubiquitous, and have been increasing ever since. 

The reality is probably more complex than Haidt’s analysis suggests: rising rates of mental health diagnoses, for instance, are partly the result of more people seeking help for emotional problems, and a widening diagnostic criteria after changes to the “psychiatrist’s bible”, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, in 2013. Many experts are reluctant to blame the epidemic of teen unhappiness and disconnection on social media and smartphones. Some, such as Kate Jopling from the Campaign to End Loneliness, feel that it is a convenient distraction from the economics of loneliness – the isolating effects of poverty and insecurity, the mass closure of youth and other community groups, and the steady decline of libraries, playgrounds, and swimming pools over 13 years of austerity.

After all, children who live in relative poverty are twice as likely to be lonely than their more affluent peers, and British children report higher levels of loneliness than those in more egalitarian European countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands. But the reality is the pandemic, austerity and smartphones have worked in tandem and produce the same effects by isolating people, uprooting them from their real-life communities and neighbourhoods and transforming how they form and maintain friendships.

It’s also often argued that social media can reduce loneliness, as when people who are isolated or out of place find their tribe online. Many studies show considerable variance, with some people benefiting from using social media, and they struggle to separate cause and effect: does excessive social media use make people depressed, or do depressed people end up spending too much time online? But focusing on individual habits misses the bigger picture: it’s a bit like highlighting the success of a single gambler and forgetting that the house always wins in the end. The truth is that the social media apps that teens – and the rest of us – use to stay connected were never designed to help us build and maintain good relationships. They were built to capture and monetise our attention and we have learnt that tech firms will show teens, will show us all, pretty much anything to keep us looking.

Our phones are constantly redirecting our attention, redirecting our care away from the people physically closest to us, away from our communities and real, embodied lives, in favour of the endless doom scroll. For teens, just as for the rest of us, friendship has become something increasingly practised at a distance, via text message or social media post. The image of the silent lecture hall is striking – chilling, even – because we think of university campuses as sociable places, but cafés are probably quieter than they have ever been, too. It has never been so easy to move through the world, to go about your day-to-day, without talking to anyone. And yet study after study has shown that so-called incidental interactions – exchanging a few pleasantries with a barista, or a fellow commuter – is key to reducing loneliness and fostering a sense of belonging.

The lie that social media companies sold is that solidarity and care can be given at a distance, when the truth is that it is embodied, a physical act. When you’re young it’s easier to feel invulnerable, but sooner or later we all learn that care isn’t a hashtag or a string of heart emojis, it’s touch and it’s presence, the act of being there for someone else. No wonder digital connection leaves so many of us feeling unfulfilled.

When Naomi, one of the students I met at a school in the north-west, posts on Instagram, its mostly photos of her cat. “I don’t want to put myself out there, I don’t want to be like ‘oh, look how much fun I’m having all the time’,” she said. “I don’t want people to look at me and judge me, basically.” The schoolgirls knew that social media is often cruel and unforgiving, and having been left to their own devices, they had tried to develop their own ways to stay safe. They spoke of cyberbullying, the way it often evaded parents’ or teachers’ notice, the way it followed you home. Toxic online ideologies, such as the misogynistic so-called men’s rights movement led by hateful figures such as Andrew Tate, were filtering down to classrooms and playgrounds. Jasmine said that the police had recently been called into her younger sister’s primary school because a group of boys, inspired by Tate, were violently attacking their male peers for not being masculine enough.

Far from “bringing the world together” as Facebook once promised to do, social media has become an engine for mass disconnection. Users are rewarded for grandstanding and self-hype, hot takes and brutal put-downs – these are the posts that attract attention and drive engagement – when we know that friendship and connection are fostered through virtues such as humility, understanding and kindness. These sites bring out the worst in all of us, but they harm the young disproportionately – those who are still trying to find their tribe and their place in the world.

The internet has become not only our primary source of information but our confidante: online searches have become repositories of our early-hours fears, weird medical symptoms, difficult feelings, “is it normal to…?” questions. But algorithm-powered recommendations often push the sad, lonely and disaffected closer to the edge. A lovesick teenage boy is likely to be fed ever more extreme and misogynistic content; an anxious teenage girl seeking diet advice might find her feed full of pro-anorexia posts. Research by the Molly Rose Foundation that analysed the most popular posts listed under hashtags related to self-harm, suicide and depression on TikTok and Instagram found that around half of these contained content that was harmful, in the sense that it glorified self-harm and suicide or promoted “relentless themes of misery, hopelessness and depression”. The foundation was established in memory of Molly Russell, a British school girl who killed herself in 2017 after viewing thousands of posts promoting suicide and self-harm. When I think of teen loneliness, I think of stories such as hers. I imagine being bombarded with posts telling you to kill yourself when all you ever wanted was to find solace, to feel a little less alone.

Russell’s father Ian has become a campaigner for internet safety and called for tech firms to be held legally responsible for exposing children to harmful content. The Online Safety Bill, which passed in October 2023 and which Russell has championed, represented an important first step by establishing that social media companies have a duty to ban illegal content (such as posts related to child abuse or terrorism) and to protect children from harmful content, such as posts promoting suicide, self-harm and anorexia. Many campaigners believe the bill’s provisions, which will be enforced by Ofcom, should go further and  address the reality that firms’ business models, which depend on maximising attention, are intrinsically harmful.

Maybe one day the idea that we gave children smartphones and almost unlimited access to the internet will seem as shocking as old black-and-white photos of kids smoking cigarettes. That is not much consolation for teenagers today. “All these rules and regulations, they’re almost coming a generation too late,” Naomi said.

[See also: How Big Tech rewired childhood]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March