For some people, finding a date is easy: simply walk up to someone you find cute, have a conversation, one thing leads to another, and congratulations! You now have a significant other. Of course, this is a rather oversimplified summary of finding a date, and many—myself included—have run through this general outline a couple of times. Yet what if I told you that there are some that have NOT run through this process; that there are people out there who have never truly ventured out of that experience; that some people out there have an increased sense of loneliness, not just lacking a significant other, but facing a wider sense of disconnect in society as a whole. Such news would likely disturb most of us, and perhaps our reactionary tendencies would just brand such people as outcasts. Perhaps such a branding could be justified, should this population remain a constant, laid forward to the darkest depths of the internet. Yet, a strange phenomenon has been occuring: a “loneliness epidemic” is upon us, especially heightened since the COVID-19 pandemic, not only affecting our dating lives, but society at large. Why is this the case? And what could we do to fix this?
First, it’s important to note that this trend towards loneliness is not simply limited to the dating life: now, more than ever, overall loneliness seems to be on the rise. According to YouGov, on average, 21% of US adults always or often feel alone as of 2019. This number is even worse for millennials, as about 30% of millennials often feel lonely according to the same study. Of course, this was before the pandemic, which, as you may surmise, the effects of being locked away in your room with limited social contact for prolonged periods of time certainly exacerbated this. Not only did the overall rate of serious loneliness rise amongst respondents (to a total of 36%), but, according to the Making Caring Common Project from Harvard Graduate School of Education, about 61% of young adults have reported such isolation compounded with 63% experiencing depression or anxiety. Of course, this wouldn’t be a sex article without discussing intimacy as well; according to the peer-reviewed journal Sexologies, sexual activities amongst participants was reduced by a frequency of 4.4, indicating an overall decrease in sex throughout much of the population. The authors of this paper postulate that this is in part due to the increased social limitations as a result of the pandemic, which in turn contributed to greater senses of loneliness and depression, thus decreasing sexual activity. For all intents and purposes, the increase in loneliness amongst Americans, even preceding the pandemic, has compounded existing problems, most notably increased rates of depression and decreased levels of sex.
How did this happen? Well, as previously mentioned, pandemic restrictions accelerated feelings of loneliness. Yet it’s important to note that the lockdown isn’t the primary cause of increased loneliness, merely an accelerant; the fact that young adults felt this before COVID-19 would suggest more is at play here. One of the reasons for this loneliness lies in part due to social media. In Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind, they note that the constant presence of digital media and devices, which they dubbed “Antisocial media”, had an adverse effect on young people. Not only did they find that increased social media usage led to increased depression, but also attempts to form large “virtual” groups that didn’t fulfill the same needs as in-person groups. Even attempts to find intimacy on social media, ironically, has facilitated loneliness, with dating apps actually increasing loneliness and anxiety amongst young people, according to Kathryn Coduto in Sage Journals. Beyond this, there is also a decrease in interpersonal relationships. The Making Caring Common Project found that, of the young adults that felt this loneliness, nearly half reported that no one has reached out to them in several weeks to see how they are doing in a genuinely caring way. Moreover, 42% of young people reported not having those outside of their family care deeply for them. What all of this indicates is a decrease in interpersonal relationships and an increase in media that simply do not meet our needs as social creatures, thus hindering our personal health and intimacy.
If reading this you happen to feel a sense of loneliness and you don’t know what to do, some of the researchers had thoughts on mitigating this epidemic. Firstly, it might be advisable to put the phone down and take a break from social media, as excessive use has only served to alienate yourself. Attempt to break out of that shell and get to know people, even if this means slightly going out of your comfort zone. Lastly, for intimacy, a healthy romantic relationship is more fulfilling to oneself than any other form, so be willing to take the time and effort to develop the skills needed to do that. Only then could we successfully put an end to the loneliness epidemic.