LAST_UPDATESun, 22 Jul 2018 10am

Modern Life Is Making The Young Lonely

“My loneliness is killing me…” were the words that were made popular by then 17-year-old Britney Spears in her hit tune Baby One More Time. Perhaps those words resonated some truth to the popstar herself, and to some youngsters with the exception of ICQ and e-mails that were popular forms of communication back in 1998.

What’s surprising is that more than a decade after, even with the emergence of various social media networking sites, Britney’s jargons remain far from void. This cyber age has apparently worsened the state of loneliness, especially among younger people, regardless the thousand friends on Facebook, thousands more followers on Twitter and Instagram, and the others that have arisen supposedly to “connect” people. We unearth why the lonely bug is so strong that it is killing our youngsters, physically and mentally, that no social media medicine would be able to cure it.

No Longer About Age

A usual perception of loneliness would be associated with the elderly as a result of feeling estranged after the passing of their loved one, or having neglectful children. However, the new age of loneliness oddly affects younger people and is deemed to be almost epidemic in some countries around the world.

Britain is named the loneliness capitol in Europe and according to a report last year, 18 to 34-year-olds in the region were more likely to feel lonely often or feel depressed because of loneliness. Meanwhile, the United States is deemed as the most lonely country on this entire planet due to the ”hookup culture” that is constantly being promoted through television shows, movies and even music. This “hookup culture” results to more youngsters looking for sex than love, that America has become a nation of desperately lonely people that have very few real ties to others. 44.2 percent of Americans between 25 to 34 years old are married but mostly end up in divorce which also leads to them living in loneliness.

Late studies have also shockingly observed, the individuals who reported feeling most alone, were youngsters under 35 years of age who are the most productive social networkers of all. Young people are constantly in search of themselves and choose to devote large portions of their time to connecting online but tend to feel more isolated than ever in their non-virtual lives, leading to emotional disconnection, mental fatigue and anxiety. Dr Siti Nor Yaacob, Senior Lecturer of Department of Human Development & Family Studies

Dr Siti Nor Yaacob, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Human Development & Family Studies, Faculty of Human Ecology, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) expresses, “Young people – adolescent and young adults are going through various transitions, adjustments and challenges in the process of searching for their own unique identity and individuality.

“Perceptions that they have poor support from significant others during this journey may make them feel isolated and lonely. Thus, despite the active use of social media, they continue to feel lonely,” she claims.


The Social-Loneliness Of Social Media

One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that young people turn to social media for consolation. Social media however is a perfect oxymoron. Dr Grant Blank, an Oxford Internet Institute survey researcher, points out that social media and the internet can be a boon and a problem. Take Facebook for example, it helps reconnect with our long lost friends, enables communication with distant loved ones, and even make new friends. But in another unplugged life, it replaces face-to-face contact which leads one to feeling lonely and distant.

A study also found that Facebook reduces life satisfaction as it withdraws people socially. Moreover, when online, youngsters present an idealised version of themselves by picking which photographs to share, or cunningly altering words to paint a pretty picture they need others to see, to live up to the expectations of their social media circles. This can be very straining to build personal relationships.

Dr Siti continues to tell us, “Social media may change the way people communicate and connect with each other, but it does not alter human psychological needs for genuine relationships. Studies show that those who have the social skills and use social media to connect and develop social networking, experience less loneliness. For those with poor social skills, social media may create the illusion of feeling connected. They may seem to have many relationships, but lack meaningful ones.”

Ardy Ayadali, Publicity Director of Befrienders was also quick to second this statement by saying, “Social media doesn't compensate for social interaction for lonely people. Yes, younger people are connected on social media nowadays, but those connections can feel artificial at times. You may find your long lost primary school friends in there, get connected with them on social media, but the relationship stays that way.

“The fact that there are younger people on social media itself, is proof that there are plenty of lonely people out there. Personally, I feel that people get connected on social media because they are lonely, or are seeking for companionship and friendship. But it's not social media that really makes people lonely,” he adds.

Another study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology social psychologist Sherry Turkle, showed that most young people prefer texting (especially on chat applications like WhatsApp, Line etc.) than talking, a possibility of hiding from each other because they say a phone call reveals too much and that actual conversations don’t give them enough control over what they want to say.

So, it appears that on the grounds that innovation makes it simpler to stay in touch, it also creates separation among individuals. It is apparent that advanced communication tools can never replace an individual, and eye to eye contact in building connections. For this, technology has destroyed the essence of humanity.


Introversion Vs Loneliness

Meanwhile, in a society full of extroversion, it’s often misunderstood that introverts are social outcasts who are prone to being lonely. But the truth is, introverts only desire solitude which proves that loneliness is not determined by the characteristics of a person.

In most cases of loneliness, there is an emotional longing for deep connections instead of superficial socialising, be it with family, friends, companion or a partner. This is why young people these days feel the strain, being active on social media but are completely isolated when obliged with a face-to-face communication.

When researchers asked college students to describe a lonely person, they said things like unsuccessful, unintelligent, passive and unattractive. However, during our conversation with a local school counsellor, she shares, “Although not all, but most introverts are inclined towards loneliness. Because they lack social skills and do not have the courage to participate in larger groups, introverts feel like they can be perfectly happy alone, or terribly lonely in a crowd.

“If introverts are at any particular risk of feeling lonely, it could be because they set high standards when it comes to friendship. They desire and require deep connections, and realistically, deep connections are not easy to find,” she tells us.

Society can be unforgiving when it disconnects individuals based on their behaviours. Youngsters strive to gain acknowledgement from their companions. They will go to extremes just to fit in and feel belonged in a social space. Dismissal may lead to loneliness and doubt.

Reminiscing his high school days, “Everyone had cliques. I often felt very lonely and left out because I was perceived as a nerd, which was uncool. No group would acknowledge my presence because I was too quiet, and because of that too, I was always alone,” said Roslan, an introvert who is now a successful businessman in his early 20s.

“My bad experience led to my withdrawal from social interaction because it made me anxious, and that was the case even though I desperately needed more sociability in my life. Sometimes I even blamed myself for being different. To not feel insecure, staying home alone seems easier and more appealing than going out or having superficial connections, where I may or may not have fun,” he expresses.

Taking Precaution

John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Reality is as such, everyone needs somebody to be a part of their lives in order to not feel lonely.

Past studies have concluded that loneliness brings negative impacts on psychosocial and physiological health. The close relationship between loneliness and mental health in young people is linked to increased stress, depression, paranoia, anxiety, addiction, personality disorder, cardiovascular risks, and cognitive decline, which could lead to suicidal attempts.

According to statistics shared by Befrienders, in 2013, out of 20,000 Malaysians who contacted the team, females appeared to be the lonelier gender. And according to the different age groups, 20% were made up of 21 to 30 year olds, proving that younger people in Malaysia are feeling lonelier compared to 51 to above 61 year olds which were 5% and 3% respectively.

With the increasing loneliness epidemic in our youngsters, we now learn that it is not an affliction among older people. As a preventive measure, we must now aim to reduce this isolation before more young victims fall into this dangerous plague. “Getting older doesn't have to mean getting lonelier, but much of this rests on laying the foundations to good-quality relationships earlier in life,” quotes Ruth Sutherland, the chief executive of Relate, UK's largest provider of relationship support.