The National College Health Assessment in 2021 surveyed 96,000 students from 137 colleges and found 68% of women felt very lonely, and 65% felt isolated either some of the time or often. Adults aren’t faring any better. About half of U.S. adults increasingly report feeling alone, and they are spending less time with friends. So why are people today feeling so disconnected? Let me offer you four of the most common reasons I see in girls who I work with.
Poorly managed friendship drama: When a young person is excluded from their friend group or is the target of gossip and mean comments, they often ask “Why are people leaving me out?” They answer the question with their own private logic, which is usually faulty. They’ll think that maybe it’s because I’m not good enough; maybe I’m too annoying, weird, quiet or awkward; or maybe I just don’t fit in. Those thoughts become beliefs, affecting the way they behave and interact socially. They may attempt to be invisible at school to avoid being hurt again. Or they may try to keep people at a distance. Unfortunately, these kinds of strategies leave them alone and disconnected.
Feelings overload: Busy schedules and technology/social media has made it so easy to distract ourselves from our emotions today. This results in feelings building up to the point of feeling overwhelmed, and they end up leaking out in unhealthy ways. Many girls tell me they feel tired and blah all of the time to the point where they just want to stay home and sleep. They shut down and isolate themselves and consequently feel lonely.
Time on devices and social media: The parts of our brain that allow us to process other’s emotions and intentions are activated by eye contact, and increased eye contact makes us more socially aware and empathetic. It allows us to make sense of our relationships. Emotions like admiration and compassion take longer to process at a neural level. If communication happens too fast, you may never fully experience the emotions of others that would affect your closeness and empathy. Spending too much time on devices instead of in-person causes teens to miss their friend’s body language, tone of voice, nonverbal cues and emotional reactions. Thus, one major cost of too much time on social media is a lack of safety, trust and interpersonal closeness.
Haven’t found their tribe: In a recent podcast, I described girls I see as “old souls.” These are girls who are mature beyond their years who stay away from drama and gossiping and yearn for deeper connections. They have a hard time in middle and high school finding peers who match their energy and maturity. I also see adolescents who are invested in a passion that may not be mainstream. This might be things like anime, painting, crocheting or a cause they feel deeply about. These young people see the world differently and thus have a hard time finding like-minded friends. Many don’t find good friends until late high school or college when peers catch up with their maturity.
We need to help young people reframe any unhealthy beliefs they’ve internalized about themselves so that they know they are good people who deserve loyal friends. They need to learn to regularly express their thoughts and feelings to prevent the symptoms resulting from emotional overload. They need education about the deleterious effects of too much time on devices as well as boundaries about the amount of time allowed on them. We need to help old souls understand why they may be having a hard time finding deep friends and facilitate experiences where they might better find their tribe. The saddest girls I know are the ones who have no one to sit with at lunch at school and end up eating alone in classrooms or the office. Find ways to support them in finding good connections.
Tim Jordan, M.D., is a behavioral pediatrician who works with girls in grade school through college. Check out his new online course, Parenting girls: The challenges girls face today with their feelings and friends and what they need, at drtimjordan.com.