If we’ve accomplished anything in the past decade, it’s trying figuring out what's to blame for the spike in loneliness amongst young people. We’ve called out social media, influencer culture and everything in between. In short, we’re really good at getting to the root of our lonesomeness in hopes of finding a cure. Loneliness, which has been called an “epidemic and a public health threat”, looks a little different in an era of quantified popularity and careers born out of “friends” and “followers” in the thousands. But why are we afraid of being lonely in the first place?
“Fearing loneliness is very common across generations and cultures,” notes Dr. Erin Vogel, a social psychologist specializing in social media use. “Technology allows Gen Z to stay connected, but it's very possible to feel lonely anyway.” The false sense of connectivity that social media tends to incubate might be why research from San Diego State University suggests that “this generation of adolescents is indeed lonelier than previous generations,” and why Gen Z received the highest score on UCLA’s Loneliness Scale last year. However, experts are still struggling to find a consistent link between this spike in loneliness and social media use.
Dawn Fallik, an associate professor at the University of Delaware, postulates that celebrity conversation around fame-induced isolation has forced young audiences to reflect on their own state of loneliness. “Younger people are genuinely surprised to ever feel lonely and are really overwhelmed by it,” Fallik told USA Today. The term “celebrity” could also apply to Instagram and Twitter-famous Sad Girls/Bois, whose online identity revolves around being lonely as a personality trait. Though using social media itself, is not a definitive cause of loneliness, images and discussion brought to the forefront of apps used to connect very well could be.
“In a way, it’s impossible for me to feel lonely,” says Nate Garner, 23, who has amassed nearly two and a half million Instagram followers. As part of what is arguably the most connected generation, Garner admits that connection and the presence of others (online or otherwise) does not always ensure the comfort many associate with large followings and social groups. In a 2018 New York Post article titled “I Have 2 Million Followers But No Friends”, Garner recounts drastic drops in self-esteem and IRL friends as his online following soared. The dissonance between a thriving online community and a dwindling number of physical friends is at the root of discomfort and grief for many social media users. Caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy, users look to apps and websites to expand their community, when in reality, the constraints created by these same apps -- and ourselves -- can actually limit and inhibit our quest for human connection.
“My theory is that social media has a lot to do with it, truly. Before social media, if you had a difficult home life, challenging friendship life, or frustrating romantic life, you can tell yourself that everyone does,” says Lane Moore, author of How To Be Alone: If You Want To And Even If You Don't. “But I think once social media became more rampant, you ‘see’ that everyone has the perfect family, everyone else has the best partner, the best friends, isn't lonely at all, and you realize, 'Oh shit, it's just me alone, failing.'”
From a screen’s width distance, Garner and fellow “influencers” appear to have obtained all of the items on Moore’s list. But back in the physical world, “Social media… has [made] me become a loner,” confesses Garner. When a flourishing online network is not reflected in a person’s daily reality, many double down on social media as a way to relinquish the lost sense of company, becoming more comfortable online than in public. As a result, a lack of “real” social connection is reinforced, forsaken in the search for that same connection via feeds and forums.
On social media, loneliness may be quantified by a low follower count and equally low numbers of likes. This troubles a generation who views their presence online as parallel to reality, but not because smaller numbers are, in themselves, ugly. It's because the economization of social media presence has created its own structural survival-of-the-fittest: those with higher numbers have the opportunity for financial gain (through ads, sponsorships, etc.), whereas those without are left to die off in an abyss of anonymity. In this way, the fear of loneliness on social media breeds further, into fear of not acquiring career success or financial gain in real life.
With the likes of Jay Alvarrez, nearly 6 million Insta followers strong, getting paid to jump into the world’s clearest waters, those watching from home may begin to connect a hearty following to greater chances at career-oriented success and a lower following to failure. With Instagram’s average CPM (cost per thousand views) at $6.70, it’s estimated that a single sponsored post from Alvarrez is over $42,000 in the bank. Although the rates to advertise with social media’s biggest and best are becoming public knowledge, the trade-off of a thriving personal life to produce the mere image of one is still kept in the dark.
“One of the things about this space that no one really talks about is how sad some of these influencers are,” says Beca Alexander, founder of influencer agency Socialyte. Jammed schedules, jealous peers, and an income completely contingent on one’s ability to create an endless stream of content are all ways in which the “successful” influencer is kept isolated from the real world experiences and connections they appear to possess.
After a review of 200 studies looking at social support’s relation to loneliness, professor Daniel Russell of Iowa State University declared that the quality of our social connections, as opposed to the quantity, may be the key to combatting the loneliness epidemic. Despite everything that social media stands for, the search for quality connections over a sizeable community of followers might be the antidote to the Gen Z-specific fear of loneliness.
This article has been updated.