By: Jindra Hartog
Loneliness. The word itself appears distant and ambiguous. And exactly that is its pitfall.
As the world becomes more and more connected digitally, people seem more detached than ever. The past two decades have seen a steady rise in the prevalence of loneliness, putting both our physical and mental health at major risk (McIntyre et al. 2018).
A group that is often overlooked in the study and support of lonely individuals is young adults, specifically students.
Understanding the Student in Student Loneliness
How widespread is loneliness within the student population, a group commonly associated with wild parties and social drinking? Can you ever be truly alone in such a context?
Although it might not be apparent immediately, loneliness is a rather complex and diverse problem. As comedian Robin Williams once said, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone” (Cacioppa et al. 2015). This observation demonstrates that a sense of loneliness does not necessarily stem from isolation or a lack of people around you. Rather, it depends on the closeness and depth of the relationships to these people, and the co-dependency on these relationships (Matthews et al. 2018). In other words, loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of an individual’s objective circumstances (Cacioppa et al. 2015).
Within the student population aged 17 to 24, this distinction is important to keep in mind. This period in life is often considered the most socially demanding decade in an individual’s life (McIntyre et al. 2018). At the same time, students experience many major life changes such as moving out of their family home and having to find security in a new and unknown place. Students often have to leave established social networks and support systems, separate from close relationships and venture into the unknown (Thomas et al. 2020). As a consequence of these social and structural changes, students may also experience sudden behavioural changes (Diehl et al. 2021). In fact, in a study of 689 German university students, approximately 1/3rd felt at least moderately lonely, highlighting the significance of such changes.
The Type of Relationship Matters
Loneliness is based on perception: It is the experience of low quality or quantity of social relationships (Asher and Weeks 2014). In terms of the latter, the rise of social media seems to have changed the dynamics of the social relationships we have today, especially for younger people. Perceptions of social status and circle are now made based on the number of followers you have on Facebook, or the number of people leaving a like on your Instagram post.
Moving social interactions into the digital sphere can be incredibly damaging for the person remaining in the real world however. Disregarding the absolute numbers, and especially the comparisons that absolute numbers encourage, is thus key (Thomas et al. 2020).
It is not only important to have a comfortable quantity of social relationships however, their quality is of equal significance. Studies have demonstrated that a more immediate form of communication with close contacts, as well as a high frequency of contact, are vital to decreasing loneliness (Gentzler et al. 2011). Think about how you communicate with a close friend for example. Seeing each other regularly, having conversations about anything and everything, regardless of how big or small, are central to boosting and maintaining the sense of intimacy. Thus, a feeling of frequent contact, as well as the presence of familiarity and comfort within one’s relationships are vital for a student’s mental wellbeing (Gentzler et al. 2011).
When starting a life in a new place however, there is often a disconnect from this type of intimacy. In a social sense, students may feel suddenly unmoored, left to fight their own way back to the shore. And this can be a physically exhausting and mentally strenuous process (Gentzler et al. 2011).
The Three-Dimensionality of Loneliness
To summarize then, it may be useful to take a little peek at something recent research has developed: The three-dimensional model of loneliness (Cacioppa et al. 2015). This model is based on the ties attached to people in your life. The first dimension is the intimate space, which encompasses the small circle of people closest to you. For students, this could be their best friend, or possibly a sibling or partner. Lacking a person to fill this intimate space can leave someone feeling abandoned and lonely (Matthees et al. 2018).
The second dimension is the social space, or in other words the circle of people around you that you feel comfortable with. While your total social circle may be broad, it is with the people falling within this category that provide you with a feeling of genuine connection and support (McIntyre et al. 2018). For students specifically, an absence in this second space occurs relatively often, as it is this type of support network that they need to rebuild from the ground up once starting a life in a new place (Thomas et al. 2020). When lacking this deeper connection, individuals can feel lonely whilst not being alone. For students, this may mean that they can sit in the lecture halls surrounded by fellow students all day, making small talk, working on projects, and at the end of the day, still go home to their empty room feeling extremely alone (Asher and Weeks 2014).
Lastly, the model distinguishes the public space, or the ‘weak ties’, in which anonymity is much higher than the other two dimensions. Relationships falling within this category are characterized by infrequent contact and low levels of intimacy (Thomas et al. 2020).
Your followers on Instagram could fall in this category, just the same as your best friend from elementary school you haven’t talked to in years. Unfortunately, with social media platforms increasingly shaping standards of social engagement, many young people place more and more importance on widening their public space for appearance’s sake, despite the fact that these relationships remain unfulfilling and unsatisfactory for their mental wellbeing (Thomas et al. 2020).
These different facets of loneliness demonstrate the difficulties that are involved in recognizing the signs of loneliness in yourself and others. Someone can be surrounded by hordes of people, but remain unhappy. On the other hand, someone may seem lonely when in actuality, they have an incredibly fulfilling intimate space.
Regardless of the difficulty however, the importance of supporting students struggling with loneliness is high. Otherwise the may stay “trapped in loneliness as they age” (Matthews et al. 2018).
Asher, S. R. and M. S. Weeks (2014). “Loneliness and belongingness in the college years.” The handbook of solitude: Psychological perspectives on social isolation, social withdrawal, and being alone, 283-301.
Cacioppo, S., A. J. Grippo, S. London, L. Goossens and J. T. Cacioppo (2015). “Loneliness: clinical import and interventions.” Perspectives on psychological science: a journal of the Association for Psychological Science 10(2), 238–249.
Diehl, K., C. Jansen, K. Ishchanova and J. Hilger-Kolb (2018). „Loneliness at Universities: Determinants of Emotional and Social Loneliness among Students.” International journal of environmental research and public health 15(9), 1865.
Gentzler, A. L., A. M. Oberhauser, D. Westerman, and D. K. Nadorff (2011). “College students use of electronic communication with parents: Links to loneliness, attachment, and relationship quality.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14(1-2), 71-74.
Matthews T., A. Danese, A. Caspi, H. L. Fisher, S. Goldman-Mellor, A. Kepa, T. E. Moffitt, C. L. Odgers and L. Arseneault (2018). “Lonely young adults in modern Britain: Findings from an epidemiological cohort study.” Psychol. Med.
McIntyre, J. C., J. Worsley, R. Corcoran, P. Harrison Woods and R. P. Bentall (2018). “Academic and non-academic predictors of student psychological distress: The role of social identity and loneliness.” Journal of Mental Health 27(3), 230-239.
Thomas, L., E. Orme and F. Kerrigan (2020). “Student loneliness: The role of social media through life transitions.” Computers & Education 146, 103754.