Answering the Kennedys Call
Much of my forthcoming book, Answering the Kennedys Call; Solutions in
Public Service and Community-Building for the Future
documents how we can
rebuild the broken communities and sense of isolation that is afflicting so many
One facet of broken communities is the growing sense of loneliness and
unhappiness in newer generations, due in part to the dominance of social
networking with smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Child Psychologist Jean Twenge says the iphone generation, those born between
1995 and 2012, are now the loneliest generation in a 2017 Atlantic
article, and book, iGen:
Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant,
Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the
Rest of Us.
“Psychologically, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of
teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an
exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health
crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Social Scientists first saw an increase in Americans’ feelings of loneliness
in the 1970s—at the same time as the advent of the World Wide Web (the
Internet), and the personal computer first introduced by Apple in 1976. But then
it was the millennials who were the most affected, and unhappy—the children of
the baby boomers.
The University of Chicago’s annual General
has also found that the number of Americans with no close friends
since 1985. “Zero” is the most common number of confidants, reported by almost a
quarter of those surveyed. Likewise, the average number of people Americans feel
they can talk to about "important matters" has fallen from three to two.
And the results of rising loneliness have been mixed, as the title of
Twenge’s book highlights—they are somewhat slower to mature and acquire social
skills to successfully negotiate adult life. There is greater social isolation
as teens focus on their phones—even sleeping with them under the pillow—rather
than acknowledging their physical surroundings. This especially affects their
physical health; they spend less hours sleeping (averaging 7 hours vs. 9 hours
needed by most teens).
“It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time
simply hanging out,” says Twenge. “That’s something most teens used to do: nerds
and jocks, poor kids and rich kids, C students and A students. The roller rink,
the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been
replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.“
Rising levels of depression and suicides are the most alarming results from
such social isolation, isolation that runs counter to our evolutionary
development—when social skills were necessary for survival that enabled
them to recognize friend from foe.
Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among
today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to
2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in
suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for
both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in
2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still
higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are
beginning to close the gap.
The Kaiser Family Foundation in conjunction with The Economist has been
measuring loneliness among U.S., U.K., and Japanese citizens. More than a fifth
of adults in the United States (22 percent) and the United Kingdom (23 percent)
as well as one in ten adults (nine percent) in Japan say they often or always
feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated
from others, and many of them say their loneliness has had a negative impact on
various aspects of their life.
“People experiencing loneliness disproportionately report lower incomes and
having a debilitating health condition or mental health conditions,” said the @KaiserFamFound/@Economist
survey. “About six in ten say there is a specific cause of their loneliness,
and, compared to those who are not lonely, they more often report being
dissatisfied with their personal financial situation. They are also more likely
to report experiencing negative life events in the past two years, such as a
negative change in financial status or a serious illness or injury. Three in ten
say their loneliness has led them to think about harming
It is part of the larger breakdown of American communities studied by Robert
Putnam in his ground-breaking book, Bowling Alone, the Collapse and Revival
of American Community
. Putnam warns that our stock of social
– the very fabric of our connections with each other - has plummeted,
impoverishing our lives and communities.
This means communities must be strengthened, with more focus put on bringing
neighborhoods together. One aid is with national social networks like Next Door
that seeks to bring neighbors
out of their homes, computers and iphones to connect and help each other with
day-to-day concerns, like cleaning the streets, advertising lost and found
items, or just knowing who are their neighbors.
Nextdoor’s virtual communities—that now cover more than 180,000 U.S.
neighborhoods, including more than 90 percent of those in the 25 largest
cities—are becoming representative of the country’s actual populations, say its
San Francisco founders.
This is social networking at its best—building community again by humanizing
the tech tools that have been dividing us.
Harlan Green © 2018
Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen