Gen Z is getting lonelier, and mentors are the cure
What do obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and loneliness have in common? They are equally draining on one’s life expectancy.
Loneliness is especially evident for members of Gen Z, or those born between 1995-2010. Springtide Research Institute, which surveys Gen Z by the tens of thousands, recently found that 70% of young people between the ages of 13-25 experience three or fewer meaningful interactions per day, while 40% say they feel they have no one to talk to and that no one really knows them well.
Despite these startling numbers, there may be a cure for the pain. Springtide found that mentoring relationships with older adults — parents, religious leaders, and teachers, for example — make a substantial difference. Their 2020 study of over 10,000 young people found that as the number of trusted adults in a young person’s life increases, the level of loneliness and purposelessness they feel decreases. While 24% of those with no adult mentors say they never feel their life has meaning and purpose, with just one adult mentor, this number dropped to 6%. A similar trend held true for loneliness — while 58% of those with no adult mentors say they sometimes or always have no one to talk to, this number dropped to 48% with just one adult mentor.
There is one problem: Meaningful relationships with older adults, or with anyone for that matter, is not Gen Z’s forte. Though they have unprecedented access to the world through smart phones, social media and other digital tools, these devices actually have a negative impact on their feelings of social connection. One study found that students with smartphones experience higher levels of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Despite big tech’s best intentions, face-to-face social interaction simply cannot be replaced by digital interactions. This leaves young people eager for relationships that embody the trust, authenticity, and transparency they aren’t finding online.
To fill the void, young people are turning to self-help books and therapy apps in record numbers. Though the impact of therapy apps is still being determined, one study found that self-help materials have no correlation with emotional stability, self-esteem, or self-discipline.
“Young people are experiencing record loneliness. Yet, even during this pandemic, they are still seeking meaning, navigating questions of identity, and pursuing community. And they need trusted adults to listen to, care for, and guide them. Mentorship is more important than ever,” explained Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute.
Though young people theoretically have access to their pick of potential mentors like parents, older siblings, or coaches, more than a quarter of young people say there is one or fewer (i.e. zero) adults they can turn to if they need to talk. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t making the potential for mentoring relationships any greater, as many young people aren’t able to interact with teachers, coaches, and counselors the same way they used to. Though young people are meeting with teachers and classmates in virtual classrooms, over sixty percent of young people told Springtide they feel disconnected from people in virtual environments, while 57% say they don’t feel they can ask questions of authority figures in virtual environments.
A new strain of COVID-19 has already prompted some schools and youth groups to go virtual for the Spring 2021 semester, presenting yet another hurdle for young people to reengage with older adults the way they’re used to. Nevertheless, school and nonprofit mentorship programs have been adaptable. Many have shifted to providing virtual opportunities for students to meet individually with mentors, finding that 1-on-1 attention — even if it’s virtual — makes a significant contribution to student confidence and self-esteem. During this challenging time, mentors have been encouraged to provide young mentees with emotional and mental support while keeping goals small and manageable. Some organizations have even created spaces for mentors and mentees to meet in person safely according to CDC guidelines, including LaunchPad4You, an innovative mentoring space that was recently launched by the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, Florida.
Gen Z has gotten a bad rap for being glued to their smartphones. I recently overheard someone say, “Communicating with adults is hard to do when one texts and tweets more than one actually talks.” However, our research shows that Gen Z needs more than TikTok and Instagram to feel known and loved. Adults can make the difference, so long as they’re willing to make the investment.