Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

The Impact of Virtual Isolation on Young Adult Mental Health

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Young adults are plugged in all the time, yet they’re lonelier than ever. Separated from peers and mentors, yet connected to technology in every waking hour, Gen Z is suffering from both social isolation and digital overload—hence the term “virtual isolation.”

As the pandemic wears on, many emerging adults feel as if their lives are on pause, and it’s taking a significant toll on their mental health. Social isolation in young adults is stunting their emotional, social, and professional growth. Remote college classes, bedroom “offices,” and virtual dating can’t compare to IRL experiences of connection and growth.

As significant life events—birthdays, graduations, vacations with family and friends, living on campus, new jobs or internships—pass them by, young adults are grieving the loss of what they used to take for granted.

Missing Out on the College Experience

Young adults are suffering from virtual isolation and physical confinement during a stage of life that is typically focused on socializing, travel, new experiences, and romantic relationships. Instead of stretching their wings, many are returning to the nest—their childhood homes—where the screen is their primary link to peers and the outside world.

"Some young adults are taking a break from college or putting it off due to their family’s financial losses during the pandemic. But many others are doing online coursework, and having a hard time staying motivated.

Some young adults are taking a break from college or putting it off due to their family’s financial losses during the pandemic. But many others are doing online coursework, and having a hard time staying motivated. They’re spending long hours on the computer without the inspiration of in-person discussions and study time. Furthermore, being online all the time means they’re also prey to the negative psychological impact of social media.

Loneliness in College and at Home

It’s common now for young adults to feel loneliness in college even if they’re living on campus, as in-person activities and classes are severely limited. A September 2020 survey of 195 students at a large US university found that close to three-quarters were experiencing increased stress and anxiety. In addition, close to half reported having depressive thoughts as a result of loneliness, uncertainty, and hopelessness.

Students’ top stressors included:

  • Fear and worry about their health and the health of loved ones (91 percent)
  • Difficulty concentrating (89 percent)
  • Sleep disruption (86 percent)
  • Decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86 percent)
  • Increased concerns about academic performance (82 percent).

Young adults living in their family homes, on their own, or with roommates are also struggling with loneliness and virtual isolation. A CDC survey released in August 2020 found that one out of four young adults (ages 18–24) had suicidal thoughts in the month prior to the study. Moreover, 75 percent were experiencing at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.

Emerging Adults in a Devastated Workplace

For those young adults who have finished college or gone directly from high school to the workplace, the outlook is challenging. Those who are able to do remote work or land online job interviews are fortunate in the current economic climate. A Pew Research poll found that one-quarter of young adults (ages 16–24) lost their jobs between February and April 2020. During that time, the proportion of this age group who are neither in school nor employed—what’s known as the “disconnection rate”— more than doubled. The disconnection rate in June was 28 percent, which equates to 10.3 million young people.

Know the Facts

A Pew Research poll found that one-quarter of young adults (ages 16–24) lost their jobs between February and April 2020.

This experience is global right now. In the UK, a survey of 2,000 young adults found that close to half had lower aspirations for the future due to the pandemic, and more than a third felt they “would never succeed in life.”

And the losses go beyond financial. For emerging adults, the workplace typically serves as an important forum for networking, collaboration, making friends, and developing social and professional skills. Even for those who have remote work, it’s not the same when everything takes place onscreen. Business Insider puts it like this: “The jobs that workers get soon after graduating often set the stage for one’s career path. It’s a time when younger workers accrue and hone new skills, begin to solidify their own personal values and missions, and start building relationships.” Experts say that won’t happen as easily via Zoom, and that remote work favors older, more established employees.

How Young Adults Are Coping with Virtual Isolation

According to the study released in September, college students were using a variety of both healthy and unhealthy mechanisms to deal with stress, anxiety, and virtual isolation. The good news is that some young adults reported doing daily self-care practices like meditation and breathing exercises, journaling, reading and drawing, spirituality, physical exercise, and positive reframing to shift their state of mind.

However, young adults are also using unhealthy coping mechanisms to self-medicate the impact of virtual isolation, primarily substance abuse. The CDC survey in August found that 25 percent of young adults had increased their substance use or started using substances to cope with pandemic-related stress and emotions. That’s the highest percentage among all age groups.

Know the Facts

In a study on young adult loneliness and substance abuse during COVID-19, 30 percent of participants reported harmful levels of drinking.

In the same study, 80 percent of the 1,000 respondents reported significant depressive symptoms, and 60 percent reported moderate to severe anxiety. In addition, more than 50 percent had high scores on a Likert scale measuring levels of loneliness.

The Antidote to Virtual Isolation

The most powerful antidote to social isolation in young adults is connection. New research at McGill University in Montreal finds that young adults who have higher levels of social support experience fewer mental health problems. Researchers found that young people who say they feel supported by family and friends experienced 47 percent less severe depression and 22 percent less anxiety one year later. Moreover, those who reported higher levels of perceived social support were 40 percent less likely to experience suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

Ironically, for many Gen Z, the safest way to feel that sense of connection with others right now is online. It seems counterintuitive that virtual communication can ease virtual isolation, but video chats, phone calls, and even texting can help ease loneliness in young adults. In addition, connection with oneself also helps ease depression and anxiety. Creative expression, mindfulness practices, yoga and movement, and time outside in nature are proven to boost well-being—along with getting us away from our devices.

In conclusion, young adults are suffering from virtual isolation due to a combination of factors denigrating their mental health and life satisfaction right now. To help counteract this disturbing trend, this age group needs connection and social support. For some, the support of a mental health professional is also important. To find out how Newport Institute can help you or a loved one address the impact of virtual isolation, anxiety, depression, and collective trauma, contact us today.


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J Psych Drugs. 2020 Oct; 52(5).

Mental Health / December 17, 2020

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