Despite social media, Generation Z, Millennials report feeling lonely

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By Sharon Jayson, Kaiser Health News

Connor Wilton moved here for the music scene. The 24-year-old singer-guitarist “knew zero people in Austin” and felt pretty lonely at first.

While this capital city is one of the nation’s buzziest places and ranks at the top of many “best” lists, Wilton wasn’t feeling it. He lived near the University of Texas at Austin but wasn’t a student; he said walking through “the social megaplex that’s UT-Austin” was intimidating, with its almost 52,000 students all seemingly having fun.

“You definitely feel like you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to penetrate that bubble,” Wilton said.

Visitors crowd 6th street in downtown Austin during the South By Southwest Music Festival.Gary Miller / FilmMagic file

Austin attracts thousands of newcomers with its thriving economy — heavy on tech, startups and entrepreneurs. And with each year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals — a major interactive, music and film festival opening Friday — some of those visitors also move here. Apple is planning a $1 billion expansion that will make Austin the company’s largest hub outside of California. The median age of Austin residents is 32.7.

But Austin also ranks at the top among cities with lonely folks in a national survey by the global health service company Cigna. Nearly half of the 20,000 adults surveyed last year reported sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). Generation Z (ages 18-22) and millennials (ages 23-37) rated themselves highest on feelings associated with loneliness.

Loneliness, with its well-documented ill effects on health, has been called an epidemic and a public health threat, especially among the elderly. But now experts are finding that the always connected social media mavens in the country’s younger generations report being lonely.

“Younger people are genuinely surprised to ever feel lonely and are really overwhelmed by it,” said Dawn Fallik, an associate professor at the University of Delaware in Newark who’s working on a book about loneliness.

She, along with Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was scheduled to speak at SXSW Friday at two sessions called “Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends.” The close look at loneliness among these techno-connected young people drew so many registrants, SXSW this week added a repeat session at the end of the day.

“They’ve been surrounded by conversation their whole lives, so when that silence happens, they have a hard time just being in it and they take it that there’s something wrong,” Fallik said.

Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of Brigham Young’s Social Connections and Health Research Laboratory, said, “The question that remains is ‘Is this just a developmental stage, or is there something different about this younger generation that hasn’t been true of younger adults in previous generations?’”