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Monday, December 26, 2022

Is loneliness in emerging adults increasing over time? A preregistered cross-temporal meta-analysis and systematic review

Buecker, S., Mund, M., Chwastek, S., Sostmann, M.,
& Luhmann, M. (2021). 
Psychological Bulletin, 147(8), 787–805.


Judged by the sheer amount of global media coverage, loneliness rates seem to be an increasingly urgent societal concern. From the late 1970s onward, the life experiences of emerging adults have been changing massively due to societal developments such as increased fragmentation of social relationships, greater mobility opportunities, and changes in communication due to technological innovations. These societal developments might have coincided with an increase in loneliness in emerging adults. In the present preregistered cross-temporal meta-analysis, we examined whether loneliness levels in emerging adults have changed over the last 43 years. Our analysis is based on 449 means from 345 studies with 437 independent samples and a total of 124,855 emerging adults who completed the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Loneliness Scale between 1976 and 2019. Averaged across all studies, loneliness levels linearly increased with increasing calendar years (β = .224, 95% CI [.138, .309]). This increase corresponds to 0.56 standard deviations on the UCLA Loneliness Scale over the 43-year studied period. Overall, the results imply that loneliness can be a rising concern in emerging adulthood. Although the frequently used term “loneliness epidemic” seems exaggerated, emerging adults should therefore not be overlooked when designing interventions against loneliness.

Impact Statement

Public Significance Statement—The present cross-temporal meta-analysis suggests that loneliness in emerging adults slightly increased over historical time from 1976 until 2019. Consequently, emerging adults should not be overlooked when designing future interventions or public health campaigns against loneliness.

From the Discussion Section

Contrary to the idea that loneliness has sharply increased since smartphones gained market saturation (in about 2012; Twenge et al., 2018), our data showed that loneliness in emerging adults remained relatively stable since 2012 but gradually increased when looking at longer periods (i.e., from 1976 until 2019). It, therefore, seems unlikely that the increased smartphone use has led to increases in emerging adults’ loneliness. However, other societal developments since the late 1970s, such as greater mobility and fragmentation of social networks, may explain increases in emerging adults’ loneliness over historical time. Since our meta-analysis cannot provide information on other age  groups such as children and  adolescents,  the  role  of  smartphone  use  on  loneliness  could  be different in other age groups.