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Social Media Triggers Loneliness in College Students

Talking with classmates instead of talking on smartphones can be uplifting.

Communicating with a phone rather than people.
Source: Wikimedia

As the academic year unfolds, although many new college students are exhilarated, some are feeling trapped and lonely.

According to a 2019 New York Times article, "Colleges are struggling to keep up with an increase in requests for mental health counseling. Many have hired additional staff members and are experimenting with new approaches to treatment."

A major issue stems from the loneliness epidemic. Some research is pointing to social media and smartphones as culprits.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist, is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology Director, MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, she writes:

“Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”

Think about it, that little smartphone deprives us of hearing other people's words, meaning, and feelings. In her book, Turkle points out research that tells us that “without conversation, we are less empathetic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.”

Sarah Van Orman leads the University of Southern California Student Health department. She said in Loneliness in College:

“It’s important to acknowledge that socializing can be hard, especially if you add on anxiety or depression, which are common on college campuses. If someone is experiencing depression or anxiety, getting up and going to a club meeting isn’t the easiest thing,” she said. “How do you initiate a conversation? How do you meet people? I think all of us are like ‘I could do better at that.’”

Loneliness is a worldwide problem. While often associated with the elderly, it now seems to be one of the major issues on college campuses as well. In 2018 The Lancet noted:

"Loneliness has been associated with objective social isolation, depression, introversion, or poor social skills. However, studies have shown these characterizations are incorrect, and that loneliness is a unique condition in which an individual perceives himself or herself to be socially isolated even when among other people. Furthermore, human longitudinal studies and animal models indicate that the deleterious effects of loneliness are not attributable to some peculiarity of individuals who are lonely, instead, they are due to the effects of loneliness on ordinary people."

Loneliness can be as detrimental to one's health as obesity or cigarettes. But why are millenials, those in Generation X, and adults so lonely? Dr. Turkle points her finger at social media and highlights a Pew Research Center Study in 2015:

"Some 92 percent of U.S. adults now have a cellphone of some kind, and 90 percent of those cell owners say that their phone is frequently with them. Some 31 percent of cell owners say they never turn their phone off and 45 percent say they rarely turn it off. This 'always-on' reality has disrupted long-standing social norms about when it is appropriate for people to shift their attention away from their physical conversations and interactions with others towards digital encounters with people and information that are enabled by their mobile phone."

Even a silenced phone on a table sets up a barrier triggering a decreased quality of interaction, and the same is true of students who place their phones on their desks. Distraction and temptation are always there.

How can students combat loneliness? Read these 14 Tips from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., The Lonely College Student on Dr. Cohan is a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.

However, it is important to note that an immediate visit to the university counseling office should be an early first step to students feeling trapped by loneliness. Trained professionals can help individualize a plan to help a student feel more comfortable with their new campus and make new friends. Many colleges and universities are tailoring programs to help make the transition more peaceful and productive.

Copyright 2019 Rita Watson

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