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“What’s one word you’d use to describe how it feels being back at school?”
In years past, when I’ve posed this question to the high-school and college-age girls in my private practice, I’d get things like, “stressed,” “tired,” and “bored.”
This year was very different.
With the exception of two in a group of nearly 100 girls, all answered, “lonely.”
Gen Z girls are dissatisfied with the quantity and quality of their friendships, and feel increasingly alone and unsupported. They describe loneliness with terms such as, “a weight on my chest,” “no one really knows me or cares,” and “a feeling in my stomach of no support.”
While they’re constantly communicating with people all over the world on social media, they’re starving for meaningful connection. This generation doesn’t know a world without smartphones, and most of them primarily interact via Instagram or on Snapchat. They use selfies and emojis the way previous generations used words.
The problem is that sending a selfie with an emoji isn’t a means for true connection and support. Instead, it becomes a distraction that satiates the need for human interaction just enough to stop teens from leaving the comfort of their bedrooms to engage in those awkward, anxiety-provoking experiences that are key to maturing — and forming healthy bonds with friends — in adolescence.
Have you ever seen a cluster of teens hanging out with their hoods up and heads down, interacting with virtual friends because they don’t know how to express emotion face to face and connect with one another in a meaningful way?
They’ve become dependent on emojis to do the heavy lifting, and only have practice communicating through phony, artificially reinforcing comments on social media, like, “OMG. ILYSM!,” “sooo pretty,” and “luv youuu.” The everyday social give-and-take learned experientially by previous generations eludes them.
This is a real problem, with detrimental effects on teen girls’ mental health.
Research shows that loneliness is linked to poor lifestyle patterns, acute and chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and suicide. It affects girls more than boys because self-esteem is shown to act as a buffer for the effects of loneliness on mental health — and the majority of girls ages 8-17 suffer from low self-esteem. Add Instagram, and the comparison game, to girls’ already fragile self-worth; isolate them in their bedrooms with their smartphones and tell them to connect with one another using pictures, weird symbols, and over-the-top acronyms… Fast forward seven years, and voila! We’ve got an epidemic with more serious consequences than obesity.
Desperate to help, I did an experiment and started NOT THERAPY: The Club. It’s not group therapy, it’s a social club that meets weekly, free of charge, and is open to the community for girls ages 14 and up. We dance, listen to music, learn healthy coping and social skills, plus evidence-based psycho-education. We practice face to face emotional expression as we engage with our topic of the week — things like fighting F.O.M.O., managing mood, increasing self-esteem, handling panic attacks, and setting boundaries with friends, to name a few. There’s only one club rule: no phones allowed.
The impact has been mind-blowing. Girls report feeling relieved for “an hour a week without all the noise.” They feel seen, heard, understood, and, wait for it: less alone.
Loneliness has an evolutionary basis; we require connection to feel good and thrive. There’s no benefit to having thousands of followers and no friends. It’s time we turn the emphasis to real relationships and meaningful interactions.
Fortunately, for every problem, there’s a solution. And it starts small. Here’s what I recommend:
Spend time with yourself — not by yourself (it’s a mental shift!) — once a week.
If you can’t truly be comfortable alone, it will be difficult to be comfortable with other people. Don’t save all the fun things to do with others. Take yourself out to dinner and a movie. Alone time doesn’t have to be downtime. Make it into uptime, that you look forward to. Be your own best company.
Institute a no phones policy with friends.
Step out from behind the screen and show your true face. Make eye contact with your friends. Learn about them. Listen with everything you’ve got. Nod along and paraphrase their words. Conversations are more fulfilling when you’re truly engaged.
Allow yourself to be vulnerable with those who matter most.
Vulnerability is neither what you put on your curated Insta nor the bleeding-out posts you toss up on your Finsta. It’s showing up for yourself and your trusted friends with a willingness to be you. Say what’s on your mind, share your opinions (even when it feels scary), or sit there and say nothing. The key is to ditch the role you play online and interact in a way that feels honest in real life.
Respond with an old-school phone call or Facetime.
Everytime your friend Snaps or DMs you, respond with a call. In-person contact is ideal, but not always realistic. Still, when you hear the other person’s tone of voice on a call, or share non-verbal body language on Facetime, it’s easier to feel truly connected.
Together, by incorporating healthy microsteps today, we can turn the tide of loneliness, and decrease the risks to our mental health right along with it.
This content is informational and educational, and it does not replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a health professional. We encourage you to speak with your health-care provider about your individual needs, or visit NAMI for more information.
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