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Philadelphians are lonely, and young people feel it the most, says study

A new nationwide study on loneliness reveals that solitude is widespread.

Lauren-Rebecca Davis with her dog, Lola, at Charles A. Papa Playground in West Philadelphia. Davis has felt lonely since her friends are able to still go out late while she is pregnant with twins.
Lauren-Rebecca Davis with her dog, Lola, at Charles A. Papa Playground in West Philadelphia. Davis has felt lonely since her friends are able to still go out late while she is pregnant with twins.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

It's not that Lauren-Rebecca Davis wants to be going out more. Still, these days, she can't help but feel lonesome.

She's six months pregnant with twins, and her peers are still partying.

She gets it, of course. "I don't want to be out as late," said Davis, 20, of West Philadelphia. "It's still unfortunate, because I want to hang out with my friends."

The result: She's lonely. But so, it turns out, are 41 percent of people in the Philadelphia area, and closer to half of all Americans, according to a new Cigna survey.

Of locals, including people in the Camden and Wilmington areas, a majority — 51 percent — doubt that anyone truly knows them well; and a quarter said they seldom felt understood, if ever. Forty-six percent of respondents from the region said they feel left out, at least sometimes.

In recent years, researchers have argued that social isolation is not only widespread, but poses a mounting public health crisis. Loneliness can impact cognitive function, sleep patterns, blood pressure, and therefore heart health, among other potential effects. Drawing from the UCLA Loneliness Scale, Cigna researchers scored the more than 20,000 responses nationwide, out of which 416 came from local residents, on a range from 20 to 80, by generations. For the Greatest Generation, the average score was 38.6; for baby boomers, 42.4. The younger the contingent, the consistently higher the marks. Adults between 18 and 22 were the most lonesome, with an average score of 48.3.

Doug Nemecek, Cigna's chief medical officer, called the results startling.

"People who feel more lonely feel subjectively like they're in worse health," Nemecek said. The researchers also looked into how sleep, exercise, and work-life balance could have an influence.

Lauren Hallden, 33, a web designer who lives in Port Richmond, created a Twitter bot to send messages of comfort to folks who posted about feeling alone. People who visit the Lonely Project web page can choose to send a tweet of support to the original tweeter, who will get a tweet that says, "Hey! Someone wanted me to let you know that you're not alone. #lonelyproject"

"Our culture doesn't really give us the opportunity to ask for those things," Hallden said. "To say that you're lonely and want people around."

Hallden has noticed young people tweeting about loneliness through pop lyrics, or "trying to put positive spin on it." But she created the bot during the aftereffects of her own breakup. That lonely phase came and went, but it ultimately inspired her to start therapy and give priority to the friends with whom she'd bonded beyond just passing time and ordering drinks, friends whom she truly trusted.

Phil Kaisman's loneliness hit after he graduated from Temple University, having not appreciated the built-in social life that comes with college until it was gone.

"Once I got out," Kaisman, 25, said, "I was like, 'Huh, that was really cool.'"

Now, when Kaisman, who works as a server and lives in Jenkintown, is feeling lonely, he aims to be mindful — observe the unpleasant thought and let it be what it is.

"I mean, I try to. That's the goal," he said. He makes an effort not to get sucked into social media, which leads him to compare himself to others.

Some experts have questioned whether loneliness among young people can be linked to social media consumption. But the Cigna study didn't find a tie.

"Regardless of whether we have 1 or 1,000 friends on Facebook, it's meaningful interactions, at home, at work, or in the community that allow us to feel less lonely and more connected," Nemecek said.

However, a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that young people with higher levels of social media activity were more likely to experience social isolation.

Despite the different findings, Brian A. Primack, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, and one of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine study's coauthors, said he wonders about the significance and quality of our interactions.

Humans, Primack explained, have "evolved over millions of years to respond to certain social cues. Our biology turns an actual human look or smile and turns that into emotions. Do we do the same thing with an emoji?"

That's not to say that an emoji can't be heartwarming, he said. But our consumption of these messaging styles is newer. If social interactions were evaluated for their capacity to nourish, where, then, would digital communications fall?

The matter, Primack said, is a bit like social nutrition. Digital communications for a lonelyhearted person "might be replacing in-person relationships that might be readily available," he said. "It might be that you're sitting in a middle of an apple orchard, but you're eating Apple Jacks."

While Primack's research found a clear connection between depression and high social media use, he noted that it couldn't distinguish between users who were prone to solitude, and users who became lonely through increased social media interactions. From the looks of it, he said, feeling isolated while perusing social networks could be a "vicious cycle."

Davis has noticed how her social media interactions can be different from real-life ones.

"Texting and tweeting can't really engage someone with how interested they are in the conversation," she said, "because I know I can tweet someone LOL with the straightest face ever."

So now she takes her dog, Lola, a Jack Russell terrier-shih tzu mix, for walks when she's feeling alone. She also turns to her mother, who she can always rely on when she needs to be held.

"It has to do with my love language," said Davis. "I need to be loved and kissed on."