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Combatting an Epidemic of Loneliness

The pandemic has increased young adults’ sense of isolation, according to new findings from HGSE's Making Caring Common initiative.
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According to a preliminary findings from Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an alarming number of Americans — and young Americans ages 18–25 in particular — are lonely and have grown increasingly lonely over the course of the pandemic. Loneliness increases the risk of serious problems, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, and substance abuse. To combat this epidemic of loneliness, we’ll need to strengthen not just our physical infrastructure but our social infrastructure — and work to restore our commitments to one another, says Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Making Caring Common.

We asked Weissbourd to tell us more about the impact of loneliness on young people, how adults can support young people, and how we can all work together to refashion social connection in our current cultural climate. 

Why are young people in particular so susceptible to loneliness?Richard Weissbourd

We find in our survey that 61% of young people [ages 18–25] are reporting serious loneliness — that they're lonely either frequently, almost all the time, or all the time. Young people were lonely prior to the pandemic. They're often disconnected from their inherited families and they don't yet have a chosen family. There are a lot of young people out there who don't have those critical guardrails, those immediate relationships with family members. 

They're also making very stressful decisions — who do I want to be, who do I want to love, what do I want to do? And they're often more alone than in other times in life in making those decisions. Rates of anxiety and depression are also high among young people, and stress and anxiety and depression and loneliness can really fuel each other. This is also an age where people really want to be social. That's how they're built and it's harder to be social [in a pandemic]. It's harder to date. It's harder to have ongoing friendships. The pandemic has exacerbated loneliness for young people in those senses as well. 

“We find in our data that 61% of young people are reporting serious loneliness — that they're lonely either frequently, almost all the time, or all the time.”
 

In what ways could our current cultural climate be exacerbating loneliness?

I think there is an overemphasis in our culture on grades, on achievement, on individual success, individual advancement. And we find this in our data — that we have elevated success over caring in child-raising. Young people are affected by that. I think it means that, particularly in highly competitive cultures, young people can be lonely. Young people can also be less likely to reach out to other young people who are lonely [because of these cultural trends].

I think social media is part of the problem, too. A lot of good can happen on social media, but I also think social media can be hell for lonely people. A lot of young people make friends on social media, people who are different often find other people who are different in the same way and develop friendships. People mobilize around causes and create communities. But it can be hell because of the amount of curation and posing that goes on in social media. You can feel bombarded with images of people who are joyfully connecting with other people, and it can make you feel really deficient because you’re not joyfully connecting as much as all the other people out there. There's also the torture of insufficient likes and the addiction of likes — a feature of social media that can really magnify and deepen loneliness. 

What can adults — caregivers and teachers — do to support young people and help them build better relationships with each other?

We have to talk to our kids about friendship and their responsibility to reach out, even sometimes to people they find irritating or frustrating, who may be lonely. Adults can do that on the playground if they see a kid who's isolated. A consistent message that adults should be giving to kids is that it's important to reach out to kids who might be isolated or disconnected. Adults also need to help children develop the capacities and skills they need to have friendships — guiding children in listening, in asking questions, guiding them in checking for understanding when they're talking to people. Those kinds of relationship skills can help a lot.

“You can feel bombarded with images of people who are joyfully connecting with other people, and it can make you feel really deficient because you’re not joyfully connecting as much as all the other people out there. There's also the torture of insufficient likes — a feature of social media that can really magnify and deepen loneliness.”
 

What can we do to help strengthen social connections at a time when people may be isolating for health reasons?

We obviously have to curb the transmission of this disease. But there is a risk here. If we are just saying to people, “isolate yourself,” they could become lonelier, and there are serious health risks to loneliness, too. So, I think we have to send a dual message, and one part of the message is stay safe. The other is stay connected. Find ways to reach out to people who might be lonely. When you're feeling lonely find ways to connect with other people, whether it's outdoors with masks or online. Connection is really important to your emotional health, and it's really important to your physical health as well. 

I also think we need to think about how we rebuild our social infrastructure, not just our physical infrastructure, so that if you go to an annual physical, your doctor is asking you about loneliness because the health and emotional risks of loneliness are so high. Schools, as part of their mission, need to be connecting parents to other parents, parents to teachers, and teachers need to be making sure every student is anchored to an adult. 

We have a relationship mapping exercise for schools that is designed to ensure that every kid is anchored to a school adult. In the big picture, what we're arguing here is for being much more intentional, concerted, and systematic about re-imagining and reweaving our social relationships, so that more people are connected and more people have relationships where they feel affirmed and known and heard and supported.