Over the course of the past two years, social isolation has increased as a result of our attempt to slow down the spread of COVID-19. An unfortunate outcome of this is an increase in loneliness.
Before COVID-19, the American College Health Association found in a 2017 survey that 64 percent of college students reported feeling “very lonely.” This is contrasted against the mere 19 percent of students who reported never feeling lonely.
Among the public overall, one in five Americans (22 percent) reported always or often feeling lonely in a 2018 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a nonprofit organization that focuses on national health.
Cigna’s 2018 US loneliness index in a survey of 20,000 found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out with 20 percent reporting feeling they never or rarely feel close to people. The same survey also found that Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) were worse off than older generations.
So, why are we so lonely and what can we do about it?
The research isn’t entirely clear. While the Cigna and KFF surveys report social media alone as not being a predictor of loneliness, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in a 2017 study did find an association between the two, arguing that increased social media use decreases social interaction and skews our perception of others.
Similarly, while a 2020 article published by the Association for Psychological Science found an association between sleep disturbances, other research questions the directionality of causation.
The KFF survey claims that loneliness is correlated with personal struggles regarding mental and physical health, financial stability, and meaningful connections with others. This is a plausible explanation why, at least in part, many of us experience loneliness: Significant personal struggles decrease our mental health, which causes us to participate in less social interaction and feel worse off, thus making us feel lonely.
There is no doubt that the pandemic caused complications regarding our health, money, and social life.
The American Psychological Association found in a 2021 report that 61 percent of adults experienced undesired weight gain since the start of the pandemic, and 67 percent of adults reported sleeping more or less than they intended. Coping with the stress from the pandemic, 24 percent of adults reported consuming more alcohol. Three in four adults reported having high-stress levels related to the pandemic, while 63 percent of adults who reported having high stress also reported being less physically active.
The pandemic caused increased financial stress too. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate tripling from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020 with civilian employment falling by 21 million.
Thus, the pandemic resulted in an already-lonely population dealing with more stressors, all of which are associated with increased social isolation and loneliness.
To combat loneliness, we need to reach out to more people, build stronger connections, and keep track of our mental health.
Ian Palacios is a junior English and philosophy major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or impalacios.edu.