All the lonely people, where do they all come from? This question once posed by the Beatles seems more relevant now than ever. In the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing has been a central policy to contain the spread of the virus. Our data suggests that this very measure could be increasing the health risks of the young population by exacerbating their feelings of loneliness and isolation. Given that the youth are not among the high-risk groups for COVID-19, policy discussions have not centered around this age group. Nonetheless, they appear to be one of the most vulnerable to the loneliness “side-effect” of the pandemic and thus we argue that they should regain a central role in health policy discussions during this prevalent time. At Premise, we send a monthly questionnaire to a sample of over 6,000 American individuals to understand their feelings of loneliness and isolation. Our data shows that the young population (aged 16-25) has seen the most significant increases in feeling lonely and isolated since March 2020, the month in which policies of social distancing were implemented. The individuals with the highest “loneliness impact” seem to be young individuals that live by themselves.
Feeling lonely and isolated is in itself a health concern. According to several studies, these feelings can cause severe health damages comparable to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness and isolation are also associated with increases in blood pressure, mental health consequences (anxiety and depression), and risk for premature mortality. Given all the potential health impacts of loneliness, it is of high importance to understand which populations are most at risk of being affected by our new “socially distanced” societal context.
Premise Data’s survey on “Loneliness” provides insights that are crucial to understanding how these feelings have evolved over the past few months in the US. Our platform allows us to monitor the monthly emotional development concerning loneliness and isolation of the following age brackets: 16-25; 26-35, 36-45, 46-55, and over 55 years old. Moreover, the nationwide presence of the app allows us to easily reach people in all corners of the United States. However, the tech savvy nature of our data collection restricts us from gathering a significant sample from the elderly, who are historically one of the most susceptible age groups to feeling lonely.
One of the main findings from analyzing our data is that there has been a significant increase in feeling “frequently” or “very frequently” lonely and isolated among the youngest age bracket (16-25 years old) since March; when “social distancing” policies began to be enforced across the nation. The graphs in Figure I and Figure II show how the feelings of loneliness and isolation have evolved since January 2020 for young people between the ages of 16-25 that live alone. This analysis focuses on how the answers vary between March and April, when social distancing became mandatory nationwide, compared to the beginning of the year when COVID-19 was yet to be declared a global pandemic. Figure I shows that in March the amount of young people that feel lonely “frequently” increased from 30% to 46%. In April, the percent of people saying they feel “very frequently” lonely was the highest of the year (40%), compared to 20% in both March and February. Moreover, Figure II displays how the percentage of young individuals that feel “very frequently” isolated is steadily increasing: 23% in February, 30% in March and 50% in April.
16 to 25 year olds that live by themselves
Insights on 16-25 year olds are even more stark when we contrast them with older people living by themselves; where those above 25 years of age exhibit little to no variation regarding how they feel in terms of loneliness and social isolation, as seen in Figure III and IV.
Above 25 year olds that live by themselves
Additionally, in Figure V and VI we can observe how all survey respondents answered these questions. These graphs include both people living alone and those that live with more than one person in their household, as well as all age brackets. If we analyze the entire population of respondents, rather than only those that live by themselves, the most prevalent answer is to feel “sometimes” lonely and isolated, compared to “very frequently” for individuals that live alone. Moreover, these graphs display a slight increase in the percentage of people that feel “sometimes” lonely and isolated in both March and April. However, none of the emotional developments are as consequential as it is for those that are young (16-25 years old) and live unaccompanied.
All survey respondents
This brief study reveals that young individuals that live alone are paying a high cost in terms of loneliness and isolation. People in this particular age bracket (16-25), deemed to be more resilient to the COVID-19 virus, seem to be severely impacted by the social distancing policies that are being implemented to counter the current pandemic. This analysis suggests that there should be complementary targeted mental health policies that take into consideration the emotional well-being of the nation’s youth and minimize the collateral damage this pandemic is potentially generating.
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