Did you know that 18 to 35-year-olds experience loneliness at higher rates than older adults? We didn't either until we came across a Cigna 2020 Loneliness survey, which reported that 61% of millennials and gen-Z-ers in America said they often felt lonely. And, that experiencing loneliness in one's 20s is near the top of the list of challenges for this age group.
This was a surprising discovery. But it's also relatively new information, so we knew that finding definitive answers to explain this trend would not be easy. Nonetheless, we wanted to know more, if only to enable young people to talk about their loneliness and provide them with the appropriate support.
Our three guests featured on this episode -- Emery Bergmann, a college student, Megan Bruneau, a therapist who specializes in working with millennials, and Dr. Melissa Hunt, a clinical psychologist and author of "No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression" -- offer great insights and practical advice for young people who might be experiencing loneliness.
Some of the topics discussed:
Judy D'Mello (00:05):
Hi, and welcome to is anybody out there, a podcast about loneliness brought to you by the connectery? I'm Judy D'Mello
Jeremy Warshaw (00:12):
And I'm Jeremy washer. Today's episode hashtag lonely focuses on 18 to 35 year olds, who according to new data are lonelier than ever, uh, pre COVID 2020 loneliness survey conducted by Cigna. The global health care provider found that young adults in America have higher rates of loneliness than older adults. And that experiencing loneliness in one's twenties is near the top of the list of challenges for both generation Z and millennials.
This was definitely an unexpected discovery. No one really knows as yet why this is happening. Some point to social media. Others think it's possibly because this is the age when young people leave home for the first time and move away from family and friends, or maybe it's simply because we are talking about loneliness more than ever.
Whatever the reason, this topic really piqued our interests because I have a 23 year old daughter and Judy has a son who's 20, and we both spent lots of time amongst this age group. So we wanted to know what's with this gnawing sense of loneliness? Like Judy said, there are no answers yet, but today's three guests offer some pretty great insight to this dilemma.
They certainly do. And especially my first guest, 20 year old Emery Bergman. Emery is a senior at Cornell university and she appeared briefly in our opening episode, "Snapshots of Loneliness." She inadvertently became a spokesperson for lonely young people after a video she made went viral on YouTube.
Emery Bergmann (01:52):
In full honesty, this was a homework assignment. The only reason why that video ended up on YouTube, actually it was because it didn't sit on my flash drive. It was like a really large video file that I had just put it online randomly, and then it actually started generating a ton of views. Eventually this website, like a parenting website, "Grown and Flown," picked it up and wrote an article about it. And then so did the Today Show. Basically the video was just more of like a visual diary. And it was me being very candid about the fact that I had felt pretty isolated during my first few months at school. Because at that time I'd only been there for about two and a half months. So when it took off, to be honest, I was mortified. I was so embarrassed and very quickly I became known as this person, who's like the poster child for loneliness.
I thought it was a very brave and honest video for somebody of your age. That's a brave thing to be talking about, as you said. So what happened after you did the video?
I didn't only have college students reaching out to me. I had like a lot people of all ages. I had someone who was like, I just moved to a new city for a job and it's been really difficult making this transition. I had one woman say I just started retirement. And so it was like really interesting experiencing all these people from all walks of life, seeing that they could apply themselves to some part of my video. So if anything, it was just like really immensely comforting.
And what was it like when you were feeling disconnected from the rest of the gang? What, what did it feel like to you?
I didn't realize that how much time I would just be moving through the world on my own. I think that like when you're in high school, you're very much in this controlled space where you're around people all the time and in college, you know, I have my own schedule and stuff. So I kind of moved through the day, you know, at my own pace. And I think that initially that was really frightening. And then there was also the fact that I was moving from people who I'd known, essentially my whole life, who I spent an innumerable amount of time with, into an environment where I didn't have any of that, you know, foundation. I was completely alone. I had to completely restart all of these friendships once again. And like, I think that was also totally alienating.
Wow, Judy, she's, she's incredibly wise and perceptive for her years
Incredibly. And she does credit that to working with a therapist and having a strong support system at home. She said she's very close to her parents, which I think definitely helps.
You know, it's funny when I've spoken with psychologists about the mindset of a lonely person, they inevitably point to the blame game that happens. You know, that negative chitchat that exists -- It's my fault that I'm lonely. It's all about me screwing up. Did Emery speak about this?
She did. She openly admits to blaming herself. Telling herself that there was something wrong with her. That she was a freak and a weirdo, not fun enough, not cool enough to connect socially.
I actually recall reading an article she wrote in the New York Times.
And my favorite bit about that article was the advice she offers to other young people about making the transition to college. Let's listen.
So, you had three pieces of advice to people who might be going through similar experiences. And I'm going to read each one and you tell me a little bit about what you mean by each of them. So number one is you can't clone your high school friends.
Yes. So that was a really important realization for me,. My high school friends and I are so, so close. So initially going into school, I was like, you know, these are the people I want to hang out with. I want someone who's like Juliet. I want someone who's like Grace. I initially realized like that is an impossible task. Like I am putting so much expectations on the people around me because, of course, my experiences with those people are so heavily weighted by our past memories and the things we do together in the town we're from, and the values we share. And to expect that from people who are from California, who are from Puerto Rico, who are from India, like for me, it was a really important realization that like, there are so many people from around the world have so much to bring and that I can learn from them. And that that's a very beautiful thing, like finding people who occupy different spaces in your heart.
Hmm. That's really beautifully said, actually. And then number two, and this one's an important one. Social media is not reality.
Aargh, social media is horrifying. But it's so hard because it really is the way I keep up with so many people who are in my life, social media is basically like personal advertising. And you're obviously not going to show every mental breakdown. Or the time that you had a wildly embarrassing social interaction. All of those things, you know, are like less demonstrated on social media. And what you are going to see are the times that are really fun with people who seem like your friends from a hundred miles away, but you've never really talked to this person for more than 20 minutes. Like there's so much that you don't know the background to in social media. And like, it's like eating a cake that has really beautiful frosting, but inside is just saw dust.
And so how do you use it responsibly? How do you actually use it these days?
There's nothing wrong with taking a break from social media. I think it seems like so important to be connected and especially like, when, you know, you can't see other people right now, but just turning your phone off and like removing yourself from that. Maybe taking some time to like, do something with your hands, draw something, listen to some music, do something that doesn't require any sort of outside interference.
Yeah. That's wonderful. I think that's such a healthy attitude. And then your third piece of advice was give yourself time to adjust.
So it's like, I thought that within 20 minutes I would have met people I really got along with and, you know, went to parties and loved all of my classes, but that was obviously not the case. And you're going to go through periods of quiet and giving yourself time to be alone can be really healthy, actually.
What I love is that a whip smart -- What are you? 21? 22?
Um, I'm still 20 actually, but yeah,
Yeah, 20! That a whip smart 20 year old is giving us this great advice on how to make difficult transitions in life, which is actually one of the times where we can find ourselves getting lonely because we're, for whatever reason feeling disconnected from the world or from people. And so, Emery, thank you so much.
Yeah, of course.
Well, it's time for my next guest, Megan Bruneau, who has been described as a "no-bullshit mental health professional," and who Deepak Chopra called the millennials therapist. I interviewed Megan when we were at the height of the lockdown and she was isolating with her boyfriend in DC.
And where were you?
Well, actually, I was sitting in a closet. For sound purposes! But it turned out to be a really introspective place to be for an hour.
So Megan, first of all, how are you doing during the pandemic?
Megan Bruneau (09:26):
I think I'm doing okay today. It's one of those things where it's like relative to this time last year, relative to the clients that I speak to, relative to how I felt, you know, three months ago. Um, so, so yeah, I mean, now I'm doing much better, but it certainly was a really challenging couple of months.
So let's try and get to what it is you do. Maybe you can tell us about your work and how you got into it.
You could say overall, I help people become more aware of their relationship to themselves. You know, we all have an inner voice and really a relationship with ourselves. And for a lot of us, it's not a super loving, positive encouraging one. So I help people become aware of that and ultimately change it to one that's more supportive and coach-like and unconditionally loving. More self-compassionate is the more technical term. I work with a lot of entrepreneurs. I do a lot of executive coaching, but I also specialize in eating disorders, you know, work with various different addictions and depression and anxiety.
One finding I was really struck by was that there's this U-shape that happens when you research loneliness in terms of age groups. And one is the elderly, which we all have known about for a long time. And then the other is the 18 to 34 year olds who are suffering badly from loneliness. So what has been your experience with this age group and with loneliness in general?
Yeah, I can speak to that both personally and professionally. You know, as I said, I'm in a relationship now, but I had had about five years of being single in New York in my late twenties and early thirties. And that was deeply lonely and challenging. And so I think just the life stage of being 18 to 35, or being elderly, we're both no longer like surrounded by family. I think that 18 to 35 range, which, you know, I'm still barely in -- I'm 34 -- but, um, it is a very difficult time in which we have to be really active in seeking out connection. And I think one of the things that gets missed a lot, like, you know, we talk about resources and we talk about doing more group things and spending less time on our phone and less time behind our computers. And I think all of that is really important as is, you know, vulnerability and all the rest.
But I think what we don't talk about enough is the impact of trauma and how it creates loneliness and how it's not necessarily that a lot of people don't have access to group settings or opportunities for making friends and connections. It's that for them, intimacy is terrifying and connection is terrifying. And so there's this experience of pushing like the gas and the brake at the same time. Where, you know, you're on the gas wanting to move forward and wanting to be in a relationship or, you know, develop a social network. And yet you're pressing the brake at the same time because the trauma or relational trauma is imprinted on your body. This idea that you can't necessarily trust people, or you can't be vulnerable, you will be hurt. You will be rejected. And so instead of being open and attuned to others and trusting them and kind of relaxing into connection, connection actually feels very scary and anxiety provoking. And so people will isolate and response to that.
Now, you said you could speak to this on a personal level. Can you maybe describe to people who don't know what loneliness feels like? Could you describe what it felt like to you?
Loneliness for me, you know, I feel it very much in my body. I feel it in my heart and my stomach. There's sort of an aching, there's an emptiness. And one thing that happens for me is that loneliness really fuses with shame. And this is the case for a lot of people. Shame is, is really a very, very difficult emotion and like all difficult emotions, it does have a pro-social element in the sense that it's trying to tell us that, you know, we're doing something anti-social that might have us ostracized from the group. But, as a result of many of our upbringings or early childhood experiences and whatnot, we developed something called chronic shame, which is not actually pro-social or productive. And it's kind of this deep belief, this like underlying belief that we're not good enough or we're bad, or we're broken. And all of this, like talk about a loneliness is as bad as like smoking 15 cigarettes a day, loneliness, you know, means that you're not popular or you haven't done a good enough job creating a social network, et cetera, et cetera, that actually makes the shame worse. And then we almost like make an interpretation that our loneliness is due to our worthlessness. And so particularly, if we've experienced any kind of like neglect, or abuse, or bullying, or chronic criticism and whatnot growing up, or inconsistent parenting or, or, um, caregiving, we tend to really personalize loneliness and think that it is just a reflection of our worth.
Are you feeling less lonely these days that you're in a relationship?
It's a good question. I think...let me think about it for a moment. Um, I certainly certainly have experiences of loneliness still and in my relationship. And I think oftentimes we think that getting into a relationship will alleviate our loneliness or relieve us of loneliness. And that may be the case for some people. And even in an intimate relationship, there can sometimes still be asymmetry either end. And so while there are moments that I feel deeply connected to my boyfriend and don't feel alone, there are often areas where we don't necessarily connect and, you know, we don't share the same kind of desire for intimacy or depth. And that's partially because of our differing attachment styles and things like that. But I certainly wouldn't say that being in a relationship has entirely alleviated my loneliness.
So how do you help yourself when you're feeling lonely? Or what's your advice to people who come to you say I'm feeling disconnected? You know, I'm sort of lost in this world.
I really do really recommend that people, if they can, work with a therapist or some form of like group therapy. Or just some, some place where they can trust that they have a safe, healthy connection. And that's what therapy does. I mean, that's what I do with a lot of my clients who are reaching out because of loneliness or because of disconnection. They don't quite feel safe enough or equipped enough to go there and go on Bumble BFF or something, but they are looking for connection. They also are looking for someone with whom they can trust to work through. What's getting in the way of connection for them, because if you are experiencing chronic loneliness and it's something you've been dealing with for a long time, it's probably not because you're unlovable or unworthy or a reject or no one wants to be with you. It's probably because at some point in your life, whether it was through again, like bullying or inconsistent parenting or neglect or whatever, you learn that that connection is unsafe. So we learned to protect ourselves and create more superficial connections or design, you know, um, careers or living situations for ourselves that really keep us isolated. So if it is possible, I really encourage people to work with a therapist.
Just from a medical standpoint, can you describe why real meaningful social connections are so important to our happiness?
You know, one thing that we really have proven again and again, is that isolation breeds depression. And on the other side of that coin, social connection is one of the few things that we truly have tons of empirical evidence to support that social connection is that is a mitigating factor against depression. There's a great quote. I think it's by Johann Hari, I believe is how you say his name. And he says the opposite of addiction isn't sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. And that's because again, we've proven and shown again and again, through multiple replicated studies, that connection is such a mitigating factor against depression. And oftentimes in disconnection, we do find ourselves more in that chronic state of stress. So we go into that fight-or-flight place, and that's where we start pumping cortisol and norepinephrine, and all of the blood drains from our prefrontal cortex and goes through our large muscle groups and we start sweating, and our heart beats faster, and our breathing gets shallow and our digestive system turns off.
And so what we want to do is we want to move from fight-or-flight to what we call tend-and-befriend. And that's kind of like the cutesy term for it, but tend-and-befriend. It's called that because when we're in our parasympathetic nervous system state, where we feel calm, relaxed, we don't feel like there are any threats. We're actually able to have connection in those moments. And that's where healing happens. That's where we have those hits of oxytocin. And those really feel good hormones and dopamine and appetite return, sex drive returns or breathing slows down. Flood goes back to the prefrontal cortex. We're able to sleep. We're able to feel calm and being in that state actually fosters further deeper connection. So connection is like so, so important for both our mental health and actually our physical health.
Get your phone out, please.
Okay. Hang on. Hang on. Okay. I got it.
Go to settings.
Now click on battery to see activity by app and on.
Hang on. Okay.
Look at Instagram for instance, what does it say?
It looks like in the last 24 hours, I spent 83 minutes on Instagram. I'm not going to tell you how much I spend on Twitter, but you know, let's say enough.
The discovery of this little feature on our phones' battery usage app is how Dr. Melissa Hunt, a psychologist and the associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania, led a definitive study on the link between social media and anxiety, depression, and even loneliness. The study, in which 140 undergrads at Penn participated, is called "No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression." Welcome Dr. Melissa Hunt.
May I call you Melissa?
Dr Melissa Hunt (19:42):
You may indeed. And I'm delighted to be here.
Thank you. So, first of all, let's just get the definition of FOMO out of the way. It is the fear of missing out, which is something that a lot of people who are on social media quite a bit, um, experience. And loneliness has been around a lot longer than social media has.
Dr Hunt (20:04):
So while it's true, that loneliness has been a part of the human condition, probably since we evolved into humans, it is also true that we know that loneliness is on the rise and that the current young adult and teenage generation is actually experiencing kind of epidemic levels of loneliness relative to generations that came before. So that's a little concerning. And given that one of the major differences in their life experience has been the rise of social media, which generations before simply didn't have, raises some really important questions. So what we decided to do was an experimental study because an experimental study allows you to actually manipulate the data and to actually make clear, cut conclusions about causality. We really wanted to get objective, factual information. And my very clever students figured out that, of course, smartphones have these app usage records built into them. The iPhone in particular actually has it. And so we were able to go in and have people take screenshots of their battery usage on their smartphones every single day and submit it to us so we knew exactly how much social media they were using. So we didn't have to rely on their self report. And people were wildly inaccurate in their estimates of how much they were using. For the most part, they massively underestimated their use. That was an important aspect of the study as well. So once we had that first week of objective data and self-monitoring, then at that point, we randomly assigned everybody in the sample to one of two conditions. Either they were allowed to just keep using social media as they normally do, except that they had to continue sending us those screenshots..
Dr Hunt (21:55):
...so we knew how much they were actually using. Or, we asked them to limit themselves to 10 minutes per platform, per day. And we were looking at the three major platforms in that study -- Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. So a total of about 30 minutes a day. And then we followed them over three weeks and then we did some final evaluations. You know, we had them complete a number of measures on depression and loneliness and so on. And what we found was really incredibly striking. What we found was that first of all, people were able to limit themselves. Um, effectively the folks in our experimental group did indeed follow instructions and got themselves down to us as about 25 minutes a day of use. And particularly for the folks who were most distressed at the start of the study, the folks who were the most, you know, experiencing the highest levels of depressive symptoms or the highest levels of loneliness, those were exactly the folks who benefited the most. So their levels of depression and loneliness really came down. Whereas the folks in the control group showed no change at all. So it was a very compelling finding. And it really lets us say with some certainty, that if you're distressed and you're using a fair bit of social media, reducing the amount of social media that you use is almost certainly going to result in improved mood and lower levels of loneliness.
In your opinion, what is the inherent problem with social media that leads to this potentially negative impact on mental wellbeing?
Dr Hunt (23:29):
So that is an absolutely fabulous question. And, you know, we don't have absolutely clear scientific evidence about this, but we are starting to get some information, um, from a sort of really causal perspective. So I did another study last year that hasn't been published yet. We found the exact same thing and a brand new sample of people, but we also dug in a little bit more and we actually looked at things like who were people following and who were they being followed by? Were they following a lot of strangers? Were they following a lot of influencers? People they had never really met or were they following people who they would actually consider true friends, real-world friends, not just Facebook friends. And it turns out that that matters. That matters a lot. So the more strangers you follow, the more distressed and depressed you're likely to be.
Dr Hunt (24:24):
Whereas the more actual friends you follow, the less distressed you're likely to be. So how we're using it matters, right? And the very notion that you would be friends -- and I'm putting that in air quotes -- with someone who you've never met and that you would follow that person, and that that person might actually be an influencer, somebody who's, you know, maybe even getting endorsement, money and product placement money and advertising income from portraying a very glossy highlights reel of their life, that may be completely unrealistic. That's really problematic it turns out. And it's, it's not good for people to follow other people like that. So that's an issue. The second issue is that the rules of engagement on social media are very different from the rules of engagement in real relationships. So in a real relationship, you build intimacy over time by sharing, not just the great photos of your last vacation, or how much fun you have doing something going out to dinner with a friend, but you share both the good and the bad you share, both the triumphs and the tribulations.
Dr Hunt (25:45):
And you share a little bit of something that you're embarrassed about or anxious about or something that didn't go well for you. And then you wait to see how your friend responds. And if they respond in a compassionate and understanding and validating way, that makes you feel safer with them and closer to them. And then they, if they in turn share something about themselves, that's a little bit of an underbelly issue, right? Something that they don't feel terribly great about. And you can then in turn, respond compassionately and in a validating way, that's how intimacy grows in the real world. And I think that there's something inherent about the way in which social media has been constructed. That simply doesn't really allow for that. Right?
So there's a section in your study about the fact that social media can be both a pro and a con. Can you explain how do we use social media to build our self-esteem for instance?
Dr Hunt (26:41):
So, one of the things we know is that the young adults who seem to be the healthiest, the best adjusted, teenagers as well, are the folks who use social media very moderately. So, the folks who were using social media somewhere between, let's say 20 and 60 minutes a day -- 60 minutes seems to be about the tipping point. If you're using it more than that, it tends to become quite detrimental. But actually people who use a little bit of social media tend to report being better off in terms of overall psychological adjustment and wellbeing than folks who aren't using social media at all. So I don't want to, in any way, demonize this technology or these platforms. Again, from our finding this last year, being able to use social media to stay connected to, let's say, you know, a high school friend who's gone to a different college, right?
Dr Hunt (27:32):
And certainly now in the era of the coronavirus and you know, the epidemic and the degree to which we're all somewhat isolated, I think social media may actually be a pretty important way for people to stay connected with loved ones. Again, not with strangers, right? It's following strangers and influencers and looking at, you know, your ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend and the great vacation they took -- that's not a good idea. But using social media to stay connected to people who you actually know and care about in the real world and doing it for a modest amount of time on any given day, I think that's a terrific use of social media
Do you think we can get there as a society that seems fairly addicted to our devices?
Dr Hunt (28:19):
One of the things that I really recommend to people is that they do engage in periodic self-monitoring about these things. You know, for anybody who's listening to this podcast right now, the minute we're done talking, pick up your phone and check your battery usage app. Just see how much time have you really been spending. And then if you're a little surprised by it, probably the next week or so pay attention to how you feel after you spend time on social media. And if you're not feeling better and God help you, if you're spending all your time doom scrolling, right. Just, you know, scrolling through passively looking for one more catastrophic story after another, oh my gosh, stop. That is not serving you well, I promise.
Yeah, that's very good advice. You should write a study about this.
Dr Hunt (29:15):
Well, funny that you say that.
That was really fascinating. I wish I'd known about this earlier because I used to be on Facebook. And what I found I was doing was posting sort of these comments that I thought were interesting or provocative. And I was spending so much time writing them and then waiting on the reaction that I would receive. And it was eating my time when I didn't get the kind of feedback that I wanted. It was making me a little anxious or down about it. And at one stage, I just thought this is just crazy that I'm spending so much time and putting so much emotional energy into how I think I'm perceived on this platform that I just said, I can't do it anymore. So I haven't been on Facebook for about a year now, and I actually feel better. I don't have any of these concerns about whether I've been smart or provocative or funny, whether my audience is growing or not. It's just not part of my consciousness now. And I, I actually am very grateful for that.
I remember when you went through that phase. I remember reading your posts and thinking it was a phase and you'd get out of it, but it wasn't pretty. But, you know, as Dr. Hunt said, it's just not practical for us to get our hate on about social media. It does have its advantages, even when it comes to loneliness. It offers a space where people feel safe to express their feelings about loneliness and isolation. For instance, here's what I found on Instagram: hashtag lonely has 7.9 million posts and hashtag loneliness has 1.7 million. I suppose it's like some version of a community, right?
Yeah. It, it, it reminds me what Dr. Fay bound Bertie said in her book "The Biography of Loneliness," that social media is at its best a bridge. You know, it's, it's a well constructed bridge, but it's only a bridge between complete aloneness and some kind of real world. And it never will be the real world.
"Is Anybody Out There?" was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.
This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Armada.
If you're enjoying this podcast and we hope you are, please rate us on Apple podcasts.
And do subscribe wherever you download your podcasts.
For more information about what you heard today, please visit the connectory.com. Let's stay connected.
Emery Bergmann is a senior Fine Arts student in the school of Art, Architecture, and Planning at Cornell University. Her art practice employs video, photography, and written work to communicate honest narratives around isolation and mental health. She's been published in The New York Times, Brit + Co, and Psycom.
Megan Bruneau, M.A. is a therapist, executive coach, writer, speaker, and podcast host. She is also the author of the book, How to Be Alone (And Together): 72 Lessons on Being at Peace With Yourself. Transparent about her own journey to mental health, Megan shares how her past struggles with eating disorders, depression, and anxiety were largely rooted in shame and perfectionism. Through integrating psychospiritual wisdom and changing her relationship to her difficult emotions and her self, she was able to heal from much of what ailed her. She now combines her personal and professional experience to help others do the same.
Melissa G. Hunt, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and serves as the Associate Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a Fellow and Diplomate of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy (academyofct.org), and is proud to have served as a frequent program committee member for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA.org). Her primary research interests are in the domains of behavioral health, stress management, and well-being. As a clinical scientist, her emphasis is on using basic psychological science to understand what contributes to distress and how to maximize joy and fulfillment, and then translating that science into treatments that are effective, acceptable, and accessible to patient populations. In particular, she focuses on identifying the underlying patient factors that lead to reduced quality of life, impairment and distress, particularly factors that exacerbate chronic health problems and make them harder to cope with, and then creating, testing and disseminating self-help treatments. In addition to her work at Penn, she also has an active private practice in clinical psychology in which she utilizes cognitive-behavioral therapy, augmented by schema therapy, imaginal rescripting, mindfulness and yoga in the treatment of mood, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, trauma, and chronic health disorders.