Young Urban People Are Lonelier Than Old Rural Folks, And Social Media Doesn’t Help
Hundreds of young German football fans in blue jerseys dance and sing in the streets before a soccer match in Manchester, England.
This rainy northwestern city is the third largest in the United Kingdom. Known for its music scene and soccer, it’s a city brimming with young people .
But for many of those young people, like 17-year-old Lee Smelhurst-Hudson, life in Greater Manchester can be tough.
“There’s not a lot of stuff to do around here,” Smelhurst-Hudson says. “So kids get bored and start vandalizing stuff and start spray painting and getting into crimes and getting they self into trouble.”
When doctors first started talking about the health dangers of loneliness, most assumed it was a problem for older, rural people. But researchers have since found that younger people, many of them in big cities, report some of the highest levels of feeling alone.
Smelhurst-Hudson lives in the Manchester borough of Oldham, which is one of the most economically deprived parts of the U.K. In parts of Oldham, nearly two in three kids live in poverty.
He's a member of a weekly Oldham arts class which is run by the Greater Manchester Youth Network, one of many local organization focused on addressing youth loneliness.
Forty percent of young Brits say they often feel lonely, compared to just under 30% of seniors.
In fact, researchers think loneliness may play a part in recent increases in mental health problems and suicide among younger people in both the United Kingdom and United States.
Finding a place
Younger people seem to be more vulnerable to loneliness because they typically don’t have the emotional resilience that people develop as they get older, according to James Duggan, a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University
“It has something to do with the firsts,” Duggan says. “The first relationship breakup. The first broken heart. The first time you move to a new city or a new school. And you don’t have a set sense of who you are, and you don’t have the experience that you have overcome these things in the past. You don’t have the strategies.”
Some British politicians have said that loneliness doesn’t discriminate as to race or class, but research shows it hits lower-income people hardest.
Duggan explains that in many Manchester neighborhoods, families have been stuck in poverty for decades, and younger generations feel they will never find a place in the wider world.
Experts call this feeling of not being valued by society “collective loneliness.”
Loneliness and social isolation aren’t new among younger people, but studies by researchers, including Dr. Cesar Escobar-Vierra, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, seem to show that social media may be making these problems worse.
“We’ve found that individuals who increased their social media use had less perception of emotional support,” Escobar-Vierra says.
It’s not just a matter of time spent online. Research by Escobar-Vierra and others suggest that how people use social media matters.
In general, young people report more signs of depression as they increase what Escobar-Vierra calls “passive” use of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
“Passive social media use is basically the behavior of scrolling down your newsfeed or your timeline without actually engaging in any of the posts or comments by basically just staring at the pictures or other content,” says Escobar-Vierra, who cautions that the research is still in its very early stages.
Social media has evolved so quickly that experts are scrambling to keep up with trends like cyberbullying, fear of missing out and developments in places like Manchester, where the lines between online trolling and real-life violence have all but disappeared.
Manchester social media is filled with rap videos in which masked gang members make threats or brag about crimes.
Guns are much more tightly controlled here than in the U.S., but the U.K. has seen an alarming surge in youth knife crime.
Last year, Danny Hussain, a 22-year-old who’s part of the same Oldham arts class as Smelhurst-Hudson, lost one of his closest friends when he was stabbed to death.
Hussain says that even months later, he’s often too upset or scared to leave his house.
“It still hits you,” Hussain says. “You still get flashbacks. You still get everything. It’s just not nice.”
To Hussain, the reason for social media-driven violence is clear.
For many young men in Oldham, recognition seems available only through online videos.
British crime experts have compared the videos to radicalization campaigns by terrorist groups targeting isolated young men, and politicians have taken steps to ban gang members convicted of knife crimes from using social media.
Disconnection from society
But psychologist Pamela Qualter of the University of Manchester thinks that doesn’t get to the underlying problem of disconnection from society.
“What we need to do is think about how do we ensure that those members of those gangs actually feel a sense of belonging away from them?” Qualter says. “We haven’t got those kinds of solutions in place.”
And for all of social media’s problems, experts think there are some people it can help.
Take Zachary Mallory, a 22-year-old native of Independence, Missouri, who from an early age has been an outspoken online LGBT advocate.
“I came out my freshman year of high school, Mallory says. “I posted a Facebook status, and I told everybody basically who I am, and this is who I am and this is how my life is gonna be.”
Offline, being out made Mallory’s life much harder. He says he was regularly beaten up and bullied in school. His family was supportive, but he couldn’t escape anti-gay messages from friends and classmates.
It eventually became too much. Mallory attempted suicide several times, and he sought out conversion therapy at a local church that claimed it could make gay people straight.
“I didn’t want to be gay,” Mallory says. “I didn’t want to have sex with men. I didn’t want to have that attraction. I mean, I was already being rejected as it was. I wanted to get rid of that rejection. I wanted to get rid of that fear of going to hell.”
After high school, he started seeing a therapist, who told him that conversion therapy is considered unethical by the American Psychiatric Association. The treatment has been banned in 16 states.
Mallory then started talking more candidly online about conversion therapy and reaching out to others who’d been through it.
But Escobar-Vierra says Mallory’s experience represents the exception when it comes to how social media affects mental health. For young LGBT people or others struggling to find community, he acknowledges it can help, even reducing depression for those who use it actively.
“Social media might be sometimes their only window to actually be able to connect with others, meeting other individuals, establishing new friendships, even for seeking and obtaining social support,” Escobar-Vierra says.
But after years as an online advocate, Zachary Mallory has been taking breaks from social media. Lately he’s been doing more in-person advocacy, including speaking publicly about conversion therapy.
He hopes that, by building a more welcoming community, young people like himself won’t have to look for community online.
“Because they are going to listen to you more if you are face-to-face than looking at a Facebook message or looking at a Facebook post or a Twitter or an Instagram photo,” Mallory says. “Having those face-to-face conversations is what creates real change.”
Editor's note: This is the second part of Loneliness Is Killing You, a five-part series on the health effects of loneliness and social isolation. KCUR reporter Alex Smith traveled to the United Kingdom to see how that nation is addressing the problem and what lessons the United States can learn from it. This reporting was made possible in part by a fellowship sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists and supported by The Commonwealth Fund.
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.