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Dr. Josh Packard Talks Loneliness and Isolation Among Young Adults


Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, discusses research on loneliness and isolation among young adults, and how social distancing has been agitating those feelings. 

Dr. Packard first highlights the difference between loneliness and isolation. “They are different, but you can experience both at the same time. Just because you’re isolated doesn’t mean you’re lonely, and just because you’re lonely doesn’t mean you’re isolated. But for the most part, for many people they tend to go hand-in-hand … Young people don’t tend to be very isolated. But even if they are around lots of people, they often feel lonely. That’s sort of counterintuitive to what you think of when you think of the dominant image of a teenager or somebody in their early 20s with their head buried in their phone on these social networks all the time. Yet the data shows that these aren’t leading to the kinds of relationships that they really want to be having.”

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“Isolation is about how much you feel included,” Dr Packard continues. “One of the weird things that we found in this study was that even when young people are a part of groups, it doesn’t do anything necessarily to change their loneliness and isolation score. We have this hypothesis that even though most young people aren’t engaged with church in the traditional sense, those who are definitely feel less lonely and less isolated. And we were really surprised to learn that attending religious services had no impact on their loneliness and isolation scores at all … Attending didn’t matter, but if they attend and they have a relationship with a trusted adult in that space, well that’s a game changer.”

“The only way that people foster a sense of belonging now is through relationships. For young people, the data is pretty clear that that relationship has to be, maybe somewhat counterintuitively, with trusted adults. Not just with peers. We were really surprised by that because we thought that peers were going to lead to a sense of belonging, but it turns out that peers cause just as much strife, trauma, and drama as they are a source of comfort. What they need are these steady relationships with adults that they can trust to run things past, and have a connection with, and have some wisdom because that’s what’s missing in their lives and those institutional connections fall away.”

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Dr. Packard discusses how social distancing during the Covid-19 Pandemic has made it more difficult for young adults to connect with trusted adults. “During the stay-at-home orders, 50% of young people had tried or were experimenting with some sort of new religious rituals. So whether that’s praying, watching services online, meditating, whatever it was. Now, you couple that with a religious world that doesn’t know how to connect with them because all their institutional connections are gone, and what we find is that while we’ve got half of the young people doing these things without their experts in the field because only 1% of young people had been reached out to by a faith leader. So, that means you’ve got all these young people trying things, but all the experts who should be there to guide them don’t know how to get access to them because their institutional methods are gone.”

“There are lessons that we learned here from quarantine that will take us forward. Those are the lessons about what really forces us to think about what happens when somebody has a feeling like they belong somewhere. What does that process look like? And we unpack that in belonging. We call it “noticed, named, and known.” But the key of it comes down to one simple fact, which is that belonging precedes believing. We’ve known this in sociology for a really long time and the church gets in trouble every time. It doesn’t always get it wrong, but you get into trouble when they start to flip that script on its head and they start thinking the belief comes first and the community comes later … We know that that’s not how groups of people work, whether it’s with regards to religion, political parties, the neighborhood that you live in. A sense of belonging always comes first if you want to create really durable, long-lasting people who share a set of beliefs.”

Dr. Packard encourages leaders and trusted adults to reach out to young people during this time in order to foster that sense of belonging and help ease loneliness.