Loneliness and Social Isolation

August 3, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 28
Do they pose a growing health epidemic? By Christina L. Lyons

Pro/Con

Is today's society making Americans lonelier than in the past?

Pro

George Sigel M.D.
Program Director, South Boston Behavioral Health Clinic, and Clinical Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine. Written for CQ Researcher, August 2018

Changes in America are felt differently by kids, younger adults and older adults.

Compared to my youth, kids today must navigate a very bumpy road. In many communities they no longer have neighborhoods where they can go out and play. There are no other kids to play with, and there is a growing feeling that the streets are unsafe.

More kids today are being raised by single, working parents, so there is more turning inward to self and more screen time. But, for many, screen time may be a solution to the feeling of being alone.

School is a good antidote, but bullying seems to be more common in schools today. In addition, a stressed-out parent or marital conflict can rub off on kids, affecting their self-esteem. Lower self-esteem saps social energy, so being at home with a screen offers a path of less resistance. And for many the cure can be as bad as the disease: When all else fails, some kids turn to drugs.

Younger adults have their own worries, which can be worse today. The divorce rate remains high, perhaps because people are too quickly getting into relationships to avoid loneliness. Some may be saddled with student loans. Others have a child or two and a tense relationship with a significant other, leading to increased loneliness. Internet dating can be good, but many find it hard to trust strangers and are overwhelmed by too many choices. And contract jobs, which are plentiful these days, provide no job security or benefits.

Older adults often are considered the most lonely. The culture has changed in how older Americans fit in as they lose their ability to be independent. Problems such as fixed incomes, growing costs, health problems, stairs, transportation and distance from loved ones pose challenges in the last chapter of life. And relying on already-stressed families for support and care may be less of an option, making assisted living or some level of institutional care necessary.

So as America changes, many are very lonely.

For my patients and their families, these problems are getting worse, while access to social services and health care is increasingly difficult.

In addition, the feeling that government serves the interests of the wealthy more than ever before leaves many lonely, anxious and worried about their future.

Con

Claude S. Fischer
Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, and Author, Still Connected. Written for CQ Researcher, August 2018

Today's society is making some Americans lonely, but no more so than American society did in previous eras.

There is little systematic evidence that average levels of feeling or being isolated have increased in the last generation or so.

Periodically, scary studies grab headlines, but they are anomalies. One such study, published in 2006, seemed to find that Americans’ access to confidants had shrunk over the prior 20 years. This study is still cited — as recently as June 19 in The New York Times — but researchers have known for several years that the finding was in error.

The bulk of the evidence, as I often report in my blog, “Made in America,” shows relative stability in levels of loneliness in America. For example, the General Social Survey, which has gathered data on American society since 1972, has asked for decades how often people see family, friends and neighbors. The long-term trend: a slight decrease in neighbor meetings and slight increases in friend and family meetings. No big news; so, no big headlines.

Indeed, today's society is not unique in presenting concern about isolation and loneliness. This has been a repeated meme.

The most persuasive descriptions of a real loneliness crisis appeared in early 20th-century studies of “the country problem,” which described isolated and lonely wives in rural places (although by then their isolation was already declining).

When commentators point with alarm to loneliness today, they commonly cite the internet. (In the past, it was the Sony Walkman, television, suburbanization, urbanization, etc.) Serious studies on the internet's impact have shown that it is a mixed bag. Some people use the internet to hide from personal contact, but more people use it to amplify personal contact.

To be sure, isolation and feelings of loneliness (which are not the same things) should be matters of concern.

Health professionals ought to look for signs of both and try to deal with them, especially as they affect adolescents and as the population ages. The elderly, notably elderly men, are particularly vulnerable to isolation, although they do not necessarily report loneliness.

The problem with sounding a false alarm that something new is happening today — and blaming the internet — is that it distracts attention from historically deeper, surer sources of social unraveling and psychological distress, such as economic and health insecurity.

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Document APA Citation
Lyons, C. L. (2018, August 3). Loneliness and Social Isolation. CQ researcher, 28, 657-680. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2018080306
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2018080306
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Stress
Aug. 03, 2018  Loneliness and Social Isolation
Feb. 12, 2010  Sleep Deprivation
Dec. 06, 2002  Homework Debate
Aug. 04, 1995  Job Stress
Jun. 23, 1995  Repetitive Stress Injuries
Aug. 14, 1992  Work, Family and Stress
Aug. 13, 1982  Pressures on Youth
Nov. 28, 1980  Stress Management
Jul. 15, 1970  Stress In Modern Life
BROWSE RELATED TOPICS:
Aging Issues
Elderly Health Issues
Employee Benefits
General International Relations
HIV and AIDS
Internet and Social Media
Marriage and Divorce
Medicaid and Medicare
Medicaid and Medicare
Mental Health
Nursing Homes and Long Term Care Facilities
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