Gen Z may be the loneliest generation

What do Americans of all generations have in common? They're lonely.

Cigna conducted a nationwide survey of 20,000 American adults to explore the impact of loneliness on different generations. They found that Americans are lonelier than ever, with nearly 50% of respondents reporting feeling left out or lonely. But Gen Z respondents—those between the ages of 18 and 22—scored highest for loneliness.

A score of 43 is the benchmark for official loneliness, according to the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Gen Z scored a 48.3 overall, higher than Millennials (45.3), Gen X (45.1), Baby Boomers (42.4), and the Greatest Generation (38.6).

"While we know that this is a group that’s coming of age and making life transitions, these findings give us a clear and surprising picture of how this generation perceives themselves," notes Douglas Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna.

So what accounts for the growing loneliness among younger generations? Some researchers point to smartphones and social media. For instance, a 2017 study published by Clinical Psychological Science suggests teens who spent more time on social media were more likely than their peers to report mental health issues.

Demand for mental health counselors is growing—so should your program offerings

"As we know from decades of research, people who interact with others face-to-face are less likely to be lonely. Recent research suggests that those who spend more time on social media, in contrast, are more likely to be lonely," explains Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

But social media use alone can't explain the entire trend. Respondents who never use social media have an average loneliness score of 41.7, compared with avid social media users, who score a 43.5.

Still, experts recommend teens and young adults learn to balance time using their phones with time surrounded by friends and family. "When people have regular, meaningful in-person interactions, they’re both less likely to be lonely and more likely to say they’re in better health," says Nemecek. Adequate sleep and exercise are also shown to improve health and decrease feelings of loneliness.

Learn more: Explore the demand for mental health services with campus partners

On college campuses, it's important to amplify conversations about mental health and help students understand that their feelings of isolation are common. Some institutions are also adopting innovative approaches to help first-year students make friends.

For example, many colleges are revamping orientation to foster emotional bonds between students and the institution. And others, like Goucher College, are redesigning residence halls to nudge freshmen to develop new relationships and avoid the feelings of loneliness that can lead them to leave school (Bruni, New York Times, 9/2/17; Manning-Schaffel, NBC News, 5/14/18).

Read more about student mental health

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A third of students show signs of mental health distress

Here's the real reason more students are seeking counseling

How one program helps 77 colleges fill the gap in mental health services

Rates of mental health challenges are still rising among teens

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