Presenting Issues: Isolation and Loneliness

December 30th 2018

Presenting Issues: Isolation and Loneliness

Isolation and withdrawal from others is one of the top issues young people describe when they come to Jigsaw to seek help. This holds across all genders and all ages. In the My World Survey of young people in Ireland, we found that adolescents who didn't talk about their problems reported more severe distress. 

None of us are immune to feelings of loneliness or isolation. In fact, researchers estimate that at any given time, roughly 20% of people feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives.

 "Loneliness is among the top five reasons for people calling us," said Catherine Brogan, of Samaritans Ireland told The Irish Independent in a 2015 article titled 'The Epidemic of Isolation'. Loneliness is usually imagined as something affecting older people. This can make it difficult for young people to admit that they feel lonely.

Being alone vs. being lonely

Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being alone gives us time to ourselves. To think. To reflect. To be creative. But when we become aware of unwanted social isolation, this can lead to social pain, which we call loneliness. Research suggests that this social pain resembles the neural activation of a physical pain response in our brains. Feelings of loneliness are similar to a physical pain.

We can feel lonely or isolated when we experience unwanted aloneness. But feelings of loneliness can also occur in company, when we feel separated or detached from the people surrounding us. Being around others does not always protect us from loneliness.

Social withdrawal and isolation often reflect underlying social or emotional difficulties. Social withdrawal can be caused by, or can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Young people may find it difficult to express feelings of isolation in a world that is more interconnected than ever before. If we are glued to our phones and constantly linked into lots of online social networks, how can we still feel isolated and cut off from people?

Research on social media and isolation

Much has been reported in the media about the negative impact of social media use on young people’s mental health.

However, recent research (published in early 2019) followed young people over two years and found no evidence that social media use makes young people depressed. The lead author of the study Taylor Heffer said “This finding contrasts with the idea that people who use a lot of social media become more depressed over time." However, the data did show that higher levels of depression predicted more social media use over time in adolescent girls meaning adolescent girls who are feeling down may turn to social media to try and make themselves feel better.

How young people use social media is also important in understanding the relationship between social media use and mental health. One study from 2015 suggested that active Facebook use, such as commenting on friend’s photos is linked to less loneliness, but passive use like scrolling is linked to more loneliness. 

Stephen Fry has described loneliness as “the most terrible” of his problems. However, he says “I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone.”

This blog post is one of a series on the presenting issues that our young people face when coming to Jigsaw.

This blog post was influenced by the following research:

Burke, M., Marlow, C., & Lento, T. (2010). Social network activity and social well-being. In Proc. CHI 2010: Conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1909–1912). New York: ACM.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W.W. Norton.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292.

Lee, D, Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., Ybarra, O., Jonides, J., & Kross, E., (2015) Passive Facebook Usage Undermines Affective Well-Being: Experimental and Longitudinal Evidence, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Vol. 144, No. 2, 480 – 488

Twenge et al. (2018), The Longitudinal Association Between Social-Media Use and Depressive Symptoms Among Adolescents and Young Adults: An Empirical Reply, Clinical Psychological Science