According to a meta-analysis of 345 studies, loneliness levels have linearly increased between 1976 and 2019, suggesting loneliness may be of rising concern in emerging adulthood. This research was published in Psychological Bulletin.
Loneliness arises when people experience a mismatch between their desired and actual social relationships. Numerous studies have reported that between the ages 18 and 29, otherwise known as emerging adulthood, loneliness reaches a peak. During this phase of life, establishing secure identities, forming intimate relationships and friendships are important goals. Thus, young adults may experience loneliness if their desired relationship goals do not match their reality.
Loneliness can have various negative consequences, including poor mental health (e.g., depression) and maladaptive coping behaviours (e.g., smoking, socially withdrawing). Lonely emerging adults report feeling less confident about their employment prospects and are more likely to be unemployed compared to their non-lonely peers. It appears that loneliness can have serious implications for both health and well-being.
However, empirical results are inconclusive on whether or not there is a loneliness epidemic. While some studies have reported an increase in loneliness in more recent years, others have observed decreases. To resolve the inconsistency in this literature, Susanne Buecker and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis using hundreds of samples over the last 43 years to investigate whether loneliness levels among emerging adults have indeed changed over time.
A total of 449 means from 345 studies were included in this meta-analysis; the final dataset included 437 independent samples from 124,855 participants between ages 18-29. The samples included both college and nonstudent participants from all around the world. Further, included studies were conducted between the years 1976 (the earliest available study) to 2019 (the most recent).
In all included studies, loneliness was measured using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which is the most frequently used measure of loneliness among emerging adults. It involves questions that measure general perception of social isolation, as well dissatisfaction with one’s social life (e.g., “I have nobody to talk to”, “People are around me but not with me”). Given there have been revisions of this scale as well as development of shortened versions since it was first introduced in the 1970s, the researchers included all versions of this scale in the meta-analysis. This was done in order to address potential variations in the psychometric properties of different versions.
The researchers identified an increase in loneliness over historical time (i.e., 1976-2019) among emerging adults. Given some academics have argued that loneliness could have increased with the development of smartphones and internet access, which “gained market saturation around 2012,” they conducted further analyses using studies that collected data after 2012. They observed no increase in loneliness for studies that collected data after 2012, suggesting that although there has been an overall increase in loneliness since 1976, loneliness levels have remained relatively stable in the last decade.
Change in loneliness over time in Asian and European samples did not differ from that of American samples. Further, there were no differences in change in loneliness between student and nonstudent samples. With an increasing proportion of women in samples, the increase in loneliness over time became slightly stronger. The authors also concluded “publication bias does not seem to be a major concern in the present cross-temporal meta-analysis.”
The researchers note that the observed trend could be explained by cohort and period effects. Cohort effects, sometimes referred to as “generation effects” are variations in the characteristics of the cohorts being studied. Period effects refer to variations among participants based on changes in a given period which affect all age groups and cohorts uniformly. In this meta-analysis, cohort and period effects were not separated, and thus, it is unknown whether this trend describes changes in all people across age or changes specific to cohorts of emerging adults.
Another limitation is that the current finding is descriptive and does not speak to all relevant mechanisms that may explain the observed trend of increasing loneliness (e.g., increasing mobility throughout daily life). The authors write, “further research on factors contributing to and maintaining loneliness is needed.”
The meta-analysis, “Is Loneliness in Emerging Adults Increasing Over Time? A Preregistered Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review”, was authored by Susanne Buecker, Marcus Mund, Sandy Chwastek, Melina Sostmann, and Maike Luhmann.