During the pandemic, loneliness was its own epidemic, and young people felt the effects of being pulled from school and social lives hard. Research even showed young people felt lonelier than any other generations during the pandemic. But now that there are few restrictions keeping them from connecting with others in-person, feelings of loneliness have not simply disappeared, as the conditions causing this issue were not only pandemic-based. Loneliness in young people is fueled by struggles with mental health, talking openly with friends and as may be expected, social media.
YPulse asks young people to rate how often they feel lonely, and their most recent answers show that loneliness is still a common feeling for them:
Three in 10 young people often or always feel lonely
On a scale from one to 10, where one is “never lonely,” and 10 is “lonely all the time,” more than a third of young people fall in the low-end category of “never/rarely lonely.” And a nearly equal amount falls in the middle of the scale, feeling lonely sometimes, but not always. But that all means roughly three in 10 young people say rate their loneliness from seven to 10, feeling lonely often or always. Millennials are slightly more likely than Gen Z to say they often or always feel lonely. And as a testament to how this issue stands alone from the pandemic induced loneliness, YPulse data shows 29% of young people rated their loneliness in the seven to 10 range in 2019 as well. In other words, the loneliness epidemic is real.
We know that mental health can be a real struggle for some young people, and their feelings can make them feel isolated. Our Mental Health report research shows 81% of Gen Z and Millennials agree “I believe no one should be ashamed asking for help, but I have a hard time doing it myself.” Even though the majority of young people say they have spoken to a professional one-on-one about their mental health before, some may feel lonely because they’re not talking about it with their close relationships; 56% of young people agree “I don’t feel comfortable talking about my mental health with friends.”
One study (of 15- and 16-year-olds around the world) showed high levels of smartphone ownership directly correlate with rising loneliness in teens. Others speculate that the trends on social media that teach young people about what it means to “have healthy relationships” have steered them wrong, and now they’ve isolated in return. But social media is certainly not the only factor contributing to young peoples’ loneliness, and loneliness is not showing up equally amongst all Gen Z and Millennials:
Contrary to what many believe, Gen Z males are the least likely to report loneliness, and Gen Z females are the most likely
When we break down young people’s answers by generation and gender, our data shows that surprisingly Gen Z males are the least likely to express feelings of constant loneliness, and significantly most likely to say they never or rarely feel lonely. But oppositely, Gen Z females are most likely to say both that they feel lonely sometimes and often or always, and least likely to say never or rarely by a -7pt margin.
While viral stories have circulated that young men are the ones most likely to be suffering from loneliness and are lacking in close friendships unlike young women, our data shows quite the opposite. Of course, one could look at the data and assume that they are just less likely to want to report their loneliness. But our What’s The Situationship trend report also shows Gen Z males actually report the highest number of acquaintances, friends, close friends, and even best friends of all young people. Our Hobbies and Passions survey data also shows that the majority of Gen Z males are most likely to be hanging out with their friends 2-3 times a week or more. And while some stories claim young men are lonely because they’re single (and that young women’s dating standards are too high for them), or because the friendships they do have are not emotionally open, YPulse data shows Gen Z males are equally as likely to say they’d turn to friends for emotional support as they would a romantic partner.
There’s a range of reasons young females are reporting higher feelings of loneliness, too. For one, our data shows young females are more likely to be struggling with negative feelings and finding ways to vocalize them; our Mental Health data shows Gen Z females are more than +20pts more likely than Gen Z males to agree they “often feel overwhelmed” (76%) and +15pts more likely to agree “I find it difficult to talk about my feelings” (76%). And amongst other factors, YPulse data has shown before that young women’s self-image is heavily impacted by social media, and feeling like they need to live up to an unreachable standard could be leaving them feeling like the odd one out. Other studies suggest that especially for teen girls, “Social media can create an exclusionary environment,” and can enable cyberbullying.
The loneliness epidemic is clearly very real amongst young people; with everything that impacts their mental health, including social media, many feel consistently isolated. And though it’s often said young men are being affected the most because of a barrier to talking about their feelings with their friends, our data shows Gen Z males have the most abundant friend groups, and find themselves feeling lonely the least often. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to all youth who are feeling lonely often, though, because they’re all struggling with the same conditions creating the problem.