Today’s college students are struggling to navigate loneliness — high expectations, social media could be why

Words by Valerie Royzman

Last fall, Lauren Woodbury waited outside the lecture hall for “Introduction to Statistics” to start. The professor was running a few minutes behind. Synchronously, students, many of them freshmen, rubbed tired eyes, yawned, directed attention back to the glowing companions in hand.

As the professor unlocked the heavy, gray double doors, Woodbury shuffled into the crowded classroom of Generation Z robots where everyone was a stranger.

“And all of the sudden, I was overcome with emotion,” says Woodbury, a Kent State sophomore studying psychology. “This big moment of ‘Is it all worth it?’”

She quickly ditched the class and wound up in the bathroom, where the frustration welling up in her wide blue eyes turned to aggressive crying. She trembled, but she managed to pull herself together enough to call her boyfriend. Jared, a University of Akron student, stayed on the line with her for three hours. He wanted to reassure her she didn’t have to brave this flood of feelings on her own.

Woodbury says she had a mental breakdown that day.

She also says this was the moment she realized she was incredibly lonely.

Woodbury, surrounded by people, felt alone.

Across the country, college students — freshmen, especially — feel this same sense of isolation, says Nance Roy, the chief clinical officer of the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to protect the mental health of teenagers and young adults.

“You’re thrust into an environment where you typically don’t know anyone. … Now you’re in a place that’s completely foreign to you,” Roy says. “You don’t have a ready-made group; you don’t have the support on a daily basis that you were comfortable and surrounded yourself with for 18 years.”

A nationwide survey from the health insurer Cigna in May reported loneliness is reaching “epidemic levels in America” — and young people are among the hardest hit.

According to the 2018 study — which surveyed 20,000 online across the country— nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. Based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which ranges from 20 to 80, those who score 43 and above are considered lonely, and the average score in America is 44.

Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, “is the loneliest generation” and scored 48.3, the survey found. Millennials follow this trend, though not to the same extent, and they scored 45.3. Baby Boomers, ages 54 to 72, and the Greatest Generation, age 72 and above, scored lower — 42.4 and 38.6, respectively.

Roy says loneliness, which she defines as an emotion and not a mental illness or condition, strikes individuals in this age group particularly hard because they’re stumbling through a transitional period. She wasn’t involved in the Cigna study.

“What most college students hear before they go off to college is, ‘Oh, these are going to be the best years of your life,’ and, in fact, that’s a pretty unrealistic picture, and you have unrealistic expectations,” she says. “You don’t have 100 friends as soon as you step on campus.”

When this realization settles in, Roy thinks students begin to feel like something could be wrong with them. And so, the loneliness unfolds.

Alexander Colbow, a psychologist for Psychological Services at Kent State, echoed these sentiments. He says loneliness “regularly comes up in the counseling office.”

“Any major transition that people experience in their lives can make them a little bit more vulnerable … especially when they’re moving and being uprooted from their social networks that they had,” Colbow says.

Woodbury says her assumptions of college didn’t match the reality.

“I couldn’t really find anyone who wanted to do anything, ever,” she says. “And last year, I didn’t have a car with me either, so I was like, ‘I’m stuck on this campus doing nothing.’ There was a lot of times that I would just come back to my room and cry.”

This realization arrived too late for Woodbury, who says the “magnitude of difference” from high school to college escalated her loneliness.

“In high school, there were a lot of things just thrown into your lap,” she says. “In college, those opportunities are still there, but you kind of have to look for them and take the initiative and realize, like, ‘I’m not just going to be handed things anymore.’”

Ericka Schneiderman, a Kent State junior studying conflict management, says she normally doesn’t have much trouble starting up conversations with strangers. When she fails to prioritize her social life and spends extended periods of time on her own, though, she feels her loneliest.

Schneiderman recalls a period when even a companion didn’t help. She says her ex-boyfriend was even more introverted than her, and they spent the bulk of their time shoulder to shoulder, not interacting with many others.

They were lonely together.

Today, Schneiderman gushes she’s happily dating someone new. Like Woodbury, her relationship is easing her loneliness. But still, when Schneiderman’s boyfriend graduates at the end of the semester, she knows this all-too-familiar monster will creep into her life again.

“He says he’ll still make time to see me, but I know how difficult adult life can get,” she says. “And there I’ll be, feeling like no one cares, that if I disappeared tomorrow, who would really notice?”

Although loneliness isn’t new, how it’s affecting today’s college students — a culture in a committed relationship with its cell phones — could be.

Roy says college students are attached to technology, and the colossal amount of time they spend with it may have repercussions. Friends post their “best selves” to social media — glamorous grins and red Solo Cups in hand — and if students are refreshing their Instagram feeds repeatedly, they begin to feel bad about their decisions to stay in their dorm rooms or home for the night.

“If I’m seeing that 24/7 or I’m glued to my screen and tracking what everybody else is doing all the time, it can certainly exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation,” she says. “Even though, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know it can’t be as good as it looks — even still, it has an impact.”

In a July 2017 study, American Journal of Preventive Medicine researchers found young adults who frequently turned to social media “seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts.”

Roy and Colbow agree social media use alone isn’t the culprit of loneliness, but because young people rely on it so heavily, they may be having trouble navigating their loneliness.

Even though her friends would say she “gets along well with others” and “is such an entertainer,” Schneiderman says this is only one version of herself that she shows the world. The other spends her time alone, locked in her room.

“Netflix and Hulu and movies and music are my main companions,” she says. “It’s not that I don’t like going out — I do. I just don’t feel motivated enough.”

Students occasionally post to Kent State’s class pages on Facebook with messages like, “SOS in need of friends to hang with” and “Looking to make some new friends. Drop your Snapchat snapcode below.”

Woodbury hasn’t tried this. She says she doesn’t think her social media use is detrimental because she didn’t have “super strong connections” with people back home in Cincinnati, so she doesn’t feel jealousy, guilt or loneliness when she sees them online.

“I actually, since graduating, haven’t talked to anyone I graduated with. … I never really felt that distance, I guess, because there wasn’t really anybody from home that I was missing,” she says.

Face-to-face interaction has changed Woodbury’s outlook as a sophomore. For her own sake, she stepped into a busier life. With a full course schedule, an internship at Akron Children’s Hospital and involvement in two psychology clubs, she feels less lonely.

“It’s just realizing that you really need to make an effort yourself  to look out there and figure out what’s fun to you. … When you find those things, that’s when you’re going to find those people that have the same likes, the same dislikes as you,” she says.

Colbow says because loneliness stems from a variety of things, solutions are case by case and depend on the student’s identity — the LGBTQ community, first-generation students, international students and others have differing situations — and what concerns they’re dealing with.

“Some of it is exploring the thoughts you have about yourself or the fears that come up when interacting with people if somebody is isolated,” he says.

Besides digging for the root cause of that student’s loneliness, Colbow recommends seeking new social interaction, which could mean joining clubs and study groups on campus, participating in residence hall activities, volunteering or sports.

“And then also kind of exploring what makes it hard to take those risks or share about something you’re struggling with or putting yourself out there in some way and saying ‘hi’ to somebody new and developing those deeper connections with people,” he says.

Woodbury says conversations with her residence hall assistant, who agreed her expectations of college were too extravagant, led her to realize her loneliness was normal. When she made more of an effort to stop toting around her loneliness, things slowly improved.

On the first day of class in the spring of her freshman year, she checked with the girl beside her to be sure she was in the right music class. That conversation, Woodbury says, led her to her best friend.

Woodbury says counseling at the Counseling Center in White Hall helped remedy her loneliness. She attended sessions in the fall and spring of freshman year out of fear her loneliness would grow too heavy for her to carry.

Roy says loneliness is not necessarily a precursor to anxiety or depression, common among college students.

“I do think that when folks are isolated for long periods of time and are lonely for an extended period of time that it certainly can be helpful to get some support, whether that be your counseling center or your family or clergy, if that’s who you go to,” she says.

Roy urges students to take note of when their loneliness — what she calls the “single biggest struggle for first-year students” — develops into “staying lonely for three years.”

Though Woodbury feels better this semester, she suspects loneliness will wrap its eerily familiar arms around her again, especially during stress-filled weeks or on weekends when fewer students are roaming campus.

This time, though, Woodbury says she isn’t so afraid.

“It’s definitely survivable,” Woodbury says. “You kind of have to have an ‘aha’ moment to get yourself out of it. You have to know that it’s not a switch that once you’re out of it, you’re going to stay out of it. You’re going to have moments — and that’s OK.”

At the start of this fall, Woodbury’s phone rang. On the other end was the secretary from the Counseling Center, who asked if she was interested in sessions this semester — asked if her loneliness was overwhelming her.

“No,” Lauren says, smiling into the phone. “I’ll reach out if I feel the need to, but so far, I’m definitely not in the same place as I was last year.”

Then she hung up.