The millennial generation has been called many things over the past decade—smartest, richest, most adaptable, most entitled, laziest…the list goes on. Sure, there are both good and bad things on the list. But perhaps the most disturbing superlative used to describe the generation is this—loneliest. A recent study conducted by Cigna, an American worldwide health services organisation, dubs millennials (individuals who are currently between 23 and 37 years of age) the loneliest generation yet. This comes as a shock. Everyone knows that a majority of this generation grew up with the internet, social media and all the cool communication tools they invented—tools that previous generations could only dream of.
Whether at home or out in public, it’s hard to spot a millennial who is not plugged into one gadget or another. The gadget in turn opens the world of social media apps that urge them to share everything from thoughts and ideas to details about their latest meal for the world to see. If they aren’t typing rapidly on their WhatsApp, they are seen idly scrolling down their Facebook feed or clicking a picture of their roadside snack for Instagram. How could a generation of people who are tuned into each other’s lives so much of the time still be lonely?
It seems, far from helping millennials form better relationships, the internet is actually making them lonelier than ever. This finding comes from a study conducted by the City University of Hong Kong, which has revealed a “worrisome vicious cycle between loneliness and internet addiction”. Excessive and unhealthy internet use would increase feelings of loneliness over time, says the study, and online social contacts with friends and family are not an effective alternative for offline social interactions in reducing feelings of loneliness.
An average person’s social media feed tends to contain an endless chain of pictures, ‘check-ins’, and updates of people having fun. Scrolling through the feed, one might find that everyone in one’s circle is partying, going on dinner dates and having long vacations at picturesque destinations. This might lead to a phenomenon that this study terms ‘Facebook envy’. A millennial who scrolls through their feed several times a day might feel that their life is not as happening as that of their peers. This might lead them to feel left out or lonely.
Of course, there’s the fact that people tend to go public about their good moments more than their bad ones. But in our attempt to present the best parts of lives on social media, we end up hiding the parts of ourselves that are real and relatable. And deep connections, as we know, are formed only when people are able to relate to each other.
“Real human relationships are rich and messy and demanding. But they are also quite necessary. Without the warmth of such relationships, we cannot lead healthy, happy lives.”
Human beings are social animals, and millennials are no exception. If anything, individuals of the still-growing-and-maturing age bracket need deep connections in order to develop themselves emotionally. Such connections can only be formed when there is real, honest communication. This means checking on each other should involve an actual conversation, and not just going through each other’s social media updates. In the era of instant messaging, however, communication of this nature is easy to avoid. Where there was once the need for a phone call, a text message or an email would suffice today.
So many millennials proudly say that they prefer to text or email than have an actual conversation with someone. The reason is that it’s easier to communicate that way—one can take the time to perfectly word our thoughts and backspace anything that might not work for us. This is a dangerous path to tread, says Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a Ted Talk titled Connected, But Alone? While brief, safe texts and emails might serve the purpose of communication to an extent, they are woefully inadequate when it comes to helping us learn about each other, she says.
Professor Turkle has a valid point. Often, what people intend to communicate in personal situations is too complicated to fit into a text message. And by editing out thoughts from the message, we end up being dishonest or ingenuine in our communication. And when relationships are built solely on such communication, they can turn out to be fleeting or shallow. This is perhaps the main reason for millennials’ loneliness. Having a thousand people as ‘friends’ on social media means nothing, if communication with them never goes beyond occasional text-messaging.
As the professor puts it, real human relationships are rich and messy and demanding. But they are also quite necessary. Without the warmth of such relationships, we cannot lead healthy, happy lives. In the absence of such relationships, we feel lonely, unstimulated and depressed. While this is true for everyone, it is particularly relevant in the case of millennials, who are too used to the virtual world for their own good. The solution is simple: the more millennials get out of the social media bubble and make real connections, the less lonely they will feel.