Lonely Millennials: Social Media to Blame

A new piece of research from Story Terrace (an organisation helping people tell their story) is asking us to get more in touch with each other. This call to action is based on findings that suggest millenials (those born 1981-1996) are most susceptible to mental illness due to loneliness. And social media is apparently to blame.

Loneliness Knows My Name

Loneliness in those my age is not unheard of. In fact it’s very heard of. It seems to be incredibly common and a simple google search will show countless articles echoing this sentiment.

A recent YouGov survey into loneliness found that 3 in 10 millennials say they always or often feel lonely. This surpasses both Baby Boomers and Generation X. We’re also more likely to report having no acquaintances, no friends, no close friends and no best friends. On the plus side, 70% reported having at least one best friend and 49% said they have 1 – 4 close friends. The reasons to explain this loneliness wasn’t fully examined but they point the finger at social media and the internet.

Whose To Blame?

Just like the YouGov study the explanations point the finger in the same direction. They both quote a study by the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that social media and a lack in communication abilities is to blame. Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt who conducted the study claims:

Here’s the bottom line: Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness”

But I still think a piece of the puzzle is missing. We may be a more technologically linked up generation than ever before. Many of us will remember getting that Nokia phone and playing snake for hours. Or the pure joy of a flip phone. We’ll remember the advent of Facebook – now considered ‘old people social media’ as I was informed by one group of kids I was working with. Some of us may remember 5 TV channels and dial up WiFi. And yet.

Leveling the Playing Field

Whilst research cannot and should not be ignored I still think we’re missing part of the picture. It’s too easy to blame low levels of wellbeing, increased loneliness or higher incidences of mental illness on social media. It may be one piece of the jigsaw puzzle but it’s not the whole.

For one, the research is not all negative despite what the media headlines would have us believe. Certainly the Happiful article which first attracted my attention to this research focuses solely on the negative impact of social media. There was no re-balance or mention of the positive affects it can generate too. In a 2015 study by University of Missouri (summary here) whilst evidence suggested regular use could lead to symptoms of depression it also found that those using the sight to feel connected to others do not experience the same negative effects.

In Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah Jayne Blakemore she quotes a 2015 study from University of Oxford and Cardiff Universities that found low levels of screen-time (TV, phone use, internet, email and socializing) was associated with low wellbeing as was high levels of screen-time. There was, however, a sweet spot where moderate use could boost wellbeing. Whilst this doesn’t directly address social media alone it does show that there can be benefits to social media.

Scapegoating Social Media

What I’ve Read in the Media

Another thing I find profoundly unhelpful is that the personal experience of one group of people seems to drown out that of the other. What do I mean by this? In my experience the headlines, unbalanced news articles I’m looking at you, engender panic particularly in parents and those that work with young people. We hear only one side of the story. In short, we’re hearing whoever shouts the loudest. As we know, panic and drama sell.

What we don’t necessarily hear are the voices of those who are the subjects of the discussions. In an editorial by The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health titled Editorial: Screen time, social media and developing brains: a cause for good or corrupting young minds? it begins by discussing a debate on social media with young people at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2018. The following happened:

“One young person held up his smartphone and stated ‘this is my heroin – it’s the heroin of our generation’. In contrast, another young person argued ‘I don’t agree – this is my life line, I am a looked-after child living on my own, and it’s the only way i have of keeping in touch with my family and friends’.”.

Whilst this debate wasn’t directly aimed at millennial’s it does highlight the spectrum of opinion within a generation. We can only imagine the difference of opinion within a society.

What I’ve Experienced

This also reflects my own experience working with young people and young professionals. Some feel incredibly attached to their phones and acknowledge that this relationship isn’t always healthy. They recognise that although they logically know that photos on Instagram and Snapchat are often filtered and edited that it can still impact their self-esteem and wellbeing. They will confess guiltily to me that sometimes they’re on social media so late at night that they get less sleep than they should. Many know they’re overly committed to their Snapchat streaks and their curated social media presence.

But. For every person who tells me this there’s one who relies on their phone and social media. Similar to those in the University of Missouri study some millennial’s find a home or a community online. I know I have. For many social media is a place to find like-minded individuals. It’s a place people feel safe. I’ve seen numerous tweets on Twitter from people saying that when they don’t feel good about the people around them they can come online and receive affirmations and encouragement. When their wellbeing is low or their symptoms of their mental illness flare up social media and the community they find there is where they turn.

On top of the social benefits we know many people use social media to learn more, to stay engaged with current events, to promote blogs, to find jobs, to network, to make money. The list goes on.

Not Just Social Media

The original Story Terrace research also found the following:

  1. More than 1 in 5 people don’t think their friends really listen when they talk about their worries or issues.
  2. More than 1 in 10 people say they don’t have time to have meaningful conversations with their loved ones or vice versa.
  3. Over 7.5 million people haven’t taken the time to reflect on their life and what they’ve managed to achieve through the years.

These are just a few of the findings but it occurs to me that there are other issues with our society that this research reveals. To me it’s part of a wider problem about the way we connect and listen. You can read my thoughts on how to listen here. We’re lacking in skills to connect with each other face-to-face as well as screen-to-screen.

Another issue seems to be time. There’s no such think as a 9/5 job anymore. Everyone seems to be working every hour under the sun and then some. On top of this there’s family and friends, hobbies, health and fitness, volunteering, advocacy etc. that people are juggling too. What we seem to need is more hours in the day. But that’s impossible. So we need to shift our focus. In the words of E.M. Forster:

“Personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger.”
― E.M. Forster, Howards End

So what are your thoughts on social media? How does it impact your wellbeing? Where do you stand on issue? Let us know by commenting below!


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7 thoughts on “Lonely Millennials: Social Media to Blame

  1. I think social media in moderation is healthy. It is not a substitute for human interaction. Like any technology, it can be used or abused. I’m reminded how when I was a child, computers were touted as being the solution to lead us into a paperless society! We all know how that worked out! I am a fan of engaging on social media and a big fan of taking breaks. This is certainly food for thought and something I am mindful of with my kids. Thank you for sharing this study!

  2. So the next few things I have to say are purely based on observations I’ve had from the Marines I’ve led over the years and then those that have worked for me. So, it is a relatively specific demigraphic. I think a lot of this has to do with changing social dynamics caused by economic changes. It’s not directly a technology problem, just related. It’s easier then ever for people to move out of their hometowns. Escape from the work place by working from home. Escape toxic environments. Or just change their environment in general. Which, while I do think that is a great thing in terms of people finding ways to fully explore and live their lives. Like all actions, there are consequences. People lose their local support networks. Which is okay if they attempt to build another one. But, often they don’t. We tend to be good at the “escaping” part, but not in the rebuilding part. A lot of people are introverts and not willing to face fears of social interaction (online and offline). We are social creatures, and we all need some kind of Network. I’m also a little early of those surveys, they haven’t really existed long enough to show affects on social media. Who knows, maybe newspapers did the same thing, or the invention of a certain instrument. What social media does do, is actually allow people to publicize their thoughts, and those thoughts, whether new it old are now easily visible. Then again, this is SWAG and general observations, so who knows. Hopefully I didn’t clog your comments too much.

  3. I know for me, living in Central America – far away from family and with only a few friends here that are really close, I turned to social media as a way to meet people. But then something else happens – we don’t just connect through social media. We do hour-long calls on Zoom/Skype/Messenger – where you are really talking. No, it’s not “in person”, but they are real conversations.
    so, for me, social media has been an incredible way to start to get to know people and then reach out and build relationships.

  4. I do think that moderate use can be good. Often people focus on the social media aspect and completely forget about all the other aspects that may be even more important when dealing with these issues. Like you said: its only a piece of the puzzle. One thing that I have constantly read is that social media causes depression as it allow people to portray lifestyles that are not “real”. As in that their lives look better on social media than they are in real life which can lead others to feel less accomplished. Not sure how true this may be but I think this still needs to be better researched as it is an interesting topic. Thank you for the good read!

  5. Some very good points here. You might want to check out the book “iGen.” It cites a lot of studies about social media and mental health. Thank you for the good read!

  6. I love this post! I can understand where it is coming from due to the negative impacts on health such as affecting quality of sleep. I’m not addicted to it but I have found that I agree with the positive side of it – it helps me feel more connected. Although the different platforms also play a role – scrolling through Facebook does make me feel low when everyone is getting married of having children. But my Twitter is much more hobby based, much more me – and that always gives me a boost.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts – lovely post!!

  7. So many people are going to be able to resonate with this so well.

    I feel like social media is constantly being put to blame when it comes to the wellbeing of young people, when it can actually be really beneficial at times. For me, posting about my experiences on my blog has helped so much to know that other people can relate to what I’m trying to communicate. Sometimes it can provide a good support network when we don’t feel like we can openly express how we feel to people we already know, whether that’s because we feel uncomfortable confronting them ourselves or others invalidate what we are saying to them.

    Hopefully some people reading this will be able to look at the other perspective that the media doesn’t always present! There’s definstely so much more to wellbeing than social media!

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