Ashley Fetters is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers families and relationships.
Young people are among the loneliest of all Americans. Schools that teach kids how to deal with feelings of isolation could help put a dent in the epidemic.
Starting in September of 2020, schoolchildren across the United Kingdom will learn from their teachers how to fend off loneliness.
In January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first “minister of loneliness.” This week, her administration released a 84-page plan detailing the specific actions it will take to curb loneliness across the country, including measures that will be enacted in schools. Starting in primary school, students will have mandatory lessons in “relationships education,” and such lessons will also be incorporated into sex-ed classes in high school.
The Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of the foremost scholars on loneliness in the United States, warns the U.S. has a significant, largely unaddressed loneliness problem of its own—and that schools desperately need to follow the U.K.’s lead and incorporate preventative measures into their lessons.
Indeed, according to a recent report by the healthcare company Cigna, nearly half of adults in the U.S. reported sometimes or always feeling alone. Marriage rates and religious-participation rates are also dropping, which are both risk factors for social isolation and loneliness. And the prevalence of loneliness seems to be especially acute among young adults: One study last year found that Americans between the ages of 21 and 30 reported feeling lonely for twice as many days as adults between ages 50 and 70, despite having larger social networks. The health consequences of loneliness can be severe: Studies suggest chronic loneliness is linked to a variety of health issues, like decreased immunity to viral infections, poor sleep, and cardiovascular issues like hypertension.
Loneliness and social isolation, it’s worth noting, are often used interchangeably, but they’re two distinct concepts. Loneliness is a feeling that may or may not depend on how many meaningful confidants they have in their life—some people feel lonely or suffer from chronic loneliness despite not being socially isolated. Still, social isolation is a leading contributor to loneliness.
The ideal school curriculum for teaching loneliness prevention, Holt-Lunstad says, would target social isolation as well as the cognitive processes that make people feel more lonely—while, of course, teaching students the health risks associated with loneliness. “Recognizing that it’s something that we need to take seriously for our health is a primary and critical step,” she says.
Holt-Lunstad advocates for a sort of “social education”—similar to schools’ efforts to provide, say, sex education and physical education—that would be integrated into existing health-education curricula to teach students how to build and maintain friendships and relationships. Learning how to provide the kind of help and support a friend or partner feels they need is an invaluable social skill that can be taught in the classroom, she adds. For example, when a broke friend asks for money but instead receives a lecture on financial management, she isn’t likely to feel she’s been supported in the way she needs.
Of course, Holt-Lunstad isn’t the first to wish students learned more social-support and empathy skills during the school day. Since as far back as 1976, researchers have recommended social education as a way to teach teens how to foster and maintain healthy relationships. In 2000, the academic E. Wayne Ross took a different approach when he wrote for Theory & Research in Social Education that individual teachers, particularly social-studies teachers, should take care to teach history and civics from the perspective of multiple perspectives to foster empathy and quell alienation among diverse groups of students. Social-skills training has also been implemented in many schools for special-needs students, and some schools have already taken measures outside of classrooms to encourage social support between students, like instituting a “buddy bench,” where kids can sit during recess or lunch to indicate that they could use a friend.
But Holt-Lunstad believes that loneliness-prevention education should not be limited to teaching students how to support others. She also believes that kids should learn early in life how to reframe their own negative responses to social situations. “We’ve all had a situation where you text someone and they don't respond right away,” she says. “Instead of assuming they’re snubbing you, they’re blowing you off, all of these kinds of negative things that could in turn lead you to respond with nasty comments or become irritated, which is not going to elicit the sort of friendly response you want,” she says, “reframe it as, ‘Perhaps they’re driving.’ ‘Perhaps they’re in a meeting.’ If you’re interpreting others’ social signals as negative, how you behave towards them is more likely to mirror that.” The existing strategies for helping people repackage their thoughts in a more positive way could be easily adapted for a classroom setting.
One big critique of incorporating social education into the school day is that it could take away time and resources that are currently used for other prevention programs, like those that target substance abuse, suicide, and bullying. But, as Holt-Lunstad told me, loneliness is a risk factor for those behaviors. “Addressing social isolation, loneliness, social disconnection helps us to address those other issues, too,” she says.
What’s most crucial in the development of a school loneliness-prevention program, though, is taking the time to develop a curriculum that works. Some school programs implemented in recent decades haven’t been all that successful: Certain abstinence-only sex education programs have been linked to higher rates of teen pregnancy, while some drug-abuse prevention programs haven’t done much to curb drug use. “So this really does need to be evidence-based,” Holt-Lunstad says. “We have to be really, really careful about the kinds of interventions we do.”
As loneliness remains a troubling and pervasive problem in America and around the world, teaching preventative skills to students could help create future generations that are healthier and more socially connected. And just as schools have implemented exercise, substance-abuse, and nutrition programs into their curricula to help kids become active, healthy adults, Holt-Lunstad says, loneliness prevention courses could help ensure they grow into empathetic, socially connected ones, too.