How to Overcome Loneliness in a Digital World

Loneliness in a Digital World - UCLA Total Wellness

At the time of the writing of this article, it has been nine months since UCLA announced that the rest of the 2019-2020 school year would be online. At that time, I did not fully comprehend the length and scope of the crisis that we were entering: I hastily said goodbye to one of my new friends and hurried home with my dad. 

However, since that first frazzled moment, my life (and the lives of billions of others around the globe) has drastically changed. Slowly, I realized that for the foreseeable future, I would attend classes in my childhood bedroom, not Moore Hall. I would see my friends virtually through FaceTime or physically from 6 feet away, rather than, exploring LA with our arms linked like I’d envisioned. I would face the fear of reaching out to people I hadn’t talked to in awhile, rather than conveniently communicating with them face-to-face. Most saliently, I have feared that physical distancing would turn into social distancing, and that new college friendships would fade away. 

My experiences are far from unique. According to a June 2020 systematic review, almost half of 18 to 24-year-olds reported feeling lonely during COVID-19 lockdown. [1] In this article, I hope to clarify the meaning of loneliness and to provide strategies on how we can alleviate loneliness in both ourselves and our loved ones. Most of all, if you are experiencing loneliness, I want you to know that your feelings are completely valid, and not matter how lonely you may feel, you are not alone. 

What exactly is loneliness?

All of this information begs a question: What exactly is loneliness? In a sentence, loneliness is the discrepancy between a person’s preferred and actual social relationships. This gap may cause individuals to experience the subjective, painful emotion of feeling alone. [2] One important, but often overlooked, aspect of loneliness is its distinctness from social isolation. While social isolation refers to being alone, loneliness refers to feeling alone. [2] This difference explains why we can spend hours by ourselves, and feel completely content. Likewise, this disparity reveals how we can be in a room surrounded by other people, and feel distinctly alone. 

Beyond this basic definition of loneliness, there are three more nuanced dimensions of loneliness. These three types of loneliness connect closely to our three levels of attentional space. According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, human evolution primed us for three circles of social relations: intimate space, social space, and public space. [2]

  • Our “intimate space” encompasses up to five people—these are our closest friends with whom we might FaceTime at 2am, or the first people we excitedly call when we get a job. They’re also those who we lean on in a crisis. [2]

  • Our second space is our “social space”. Our social friends can include around fifteen to twenty people—for example, our school friend who we might ask to join us at Diddy Riese, or a buddy who we can comfortably chat with over coffee.

  • Our last attentional space is our “public space.” This space can include around 150 to 500 people, from coworkers to other members of our campus clubs. [2] Even though these amicable, familiar people are not our closest friends, they still contribute to our sense of belonging. [3]

Social Friends - UCLA Total Wellness

Since our attentional space consists of these inner, middle, and outer forms of connection, we can experience loneliness if we feel lacking in one of these spaces. For example, we might have a close relationship with our family or significant other, but we might crave connection with “middle circle” friends or membership in a larger group. If you are experiencing this situation—feeling content in one type of relationship but feeling lost in another—that is completely valid. 

Another difficult but important aspect of loneliness is that it can often form a self-perpetuating cycle. According to a 2016 meta-analysis, if we are isolated from others, we might feel tense and want to preserve ourselves. [2] We might view social interactions with a negativity bias and detect signs of rejection more readily than signs of affirmation. [4] In the era impacted by COVID, for example, if we are feeling lonely, we might interpret a slow text response as a lack of interest in a given relationship (e.g. romantic, platonic, business, etc). Consequently, we may feel poorly about ourselves, and our feelings of loneliness may increase . 

How has the pandemic affected loneliness?

Social support is incredibly important for emotional health and well-being; however, physical distancing is one of the most important ways to stop the spread of COVID-19. In this era of Zoom calls, people around the world have experienced an increase in loneliness: in an April 2020 survey, 47% of respondents said that they are feeling more lonely than usual. [5] This increased prevalence of loneliness can have a profound impact on our mental health. According to a study on COVID-19 and mental health, studies on past epidemics and disasters reveal that symptoms of depression and other negative mental health are exacerbated by loneliness and lack of social support. [1] Given these findings, it is reasonable to imagine that social distancing can have profound negative effects on our mental health. 

How can I help myself or those around me?

Loneliness is a complex problem that definitely can’t be solved overnight. However, there are some things that we can do if we or those around us are experiencing loneliness. 

Couple at Sunset - UCLA Total Wellness

Check in with ourselves

Perhaps one of the most important things that you can do in these times is to check in with yourself. You can ask yourself: “Am I able to connect with others on a ‘deeper’ level?”, “Do I feel like there are people I can turn to?”, “Do I feel ‘in tune’ with the people around me?”. Asking these questions can help identify whether you are experiencing loneliness. 

Rekindle a connection with ourselves

Rekindling a connection with ourselves can have a meaningful impact on our self-confidence and our ability to connect with others. Often, external influences can cause us to question our sense of identity: our culture might reinforce self-criticism as a way to motivate us to do more and better, and changes in environment can cause us to lose our sense of emotional grounding and identity. [3] In college and the age of COVID, these two influences may cause us to lose touch with what we truly value and want, leaving us with a heightened sense of uncertainty. It is more important than ever to treat ourselves with kindness and candor. [3] To regain this sense of identity, we can try rediscovering our interests, passions, and values. For example, did you used to play guitar? Pick it up again! Do you feel nostalgic about a past interest in reading? Find a good book! Reconnecting with our sense of self can give us the confidence to pursue relationships with others. 

Knowledge about ourselves can also allow us to know what types of social connections can bring us the most fulfillment and help guide which social activities to pursue. For example, for an introvert, a fulfilling social experience might be a quiet conversation in a coffee shop (or, as a COVID-friendly option, a socially distanced walk or chat in a park). However, an extrovert may prefer to spend time in a group setting (or, in the age of COVID, a socially-distanced group hangout). [3] This self-knowledge can prove invaluable, because it allows us to pursue social activities that are enjoyable for us. 

Pursue Quality Relationships

When pursuing social interactions, quality defeats quantity. It is much more fulfilling to form meaningful connections with a small number of people than dozens of casual acquaintances. It is important to keep this idea in mind so that we can maximize our pursuit of meaningful  social activities. According to Robin Dunbar, humans are wired to devote about 60 percent of our time and energy to our inner-circle friends, and the remaining 40 percent to our middle and outer circle friends. [3] Technology, a constant presence in our current time, can help us spend time with friends while we are physically-distancing. However, that same technology can easily flip the 60-40 balance and cause us to spend more time engaged in lower-quality interactions, such as wishing a distant friend happy birthday on Facebook. [3] Rather than these easier but less fulfilling interactions, it is more valuable to spend time with friends with whom we can foster deep and meaningful connections—friends with whom the connection is mutual and reciprocal; friends who support us, and who we care for in return. 

Friendship - UCLA Total Wellness

Check in on others who may be lonely

According to one Australian meta-analysis study on the pandemic and loneliness, if we view the situation as a shared experience—one in which we are struggling through together—and if we check in on each other, that loneliness may be mitigated. [6] According to the study, checking in with loved ones and offering support, even virtually, may compensate for ways that we used to connect with people. Reaching out might look like writing emails to those we care about to express what we appreciate about them. It might also mean continuing past traditions, but in a virtual format. These forms of reaching out can help both our loved ones and ourselves feel less lonely. 

Pursue help

Lastly, if you are struggling with your mental health, talk to your doctor, therapist, or other healthcare professional. Therapy, such as social cognitive behavioral interventions, has proven helpful in reducing the prevalence of loneliness. [3] UCLA has several amazing mental health resources, including CAPS and RISE, and there are many resources outside of UCLA, such as therapy and support groups. There are many professionals who know how to help manage loneliness. 

Bottom Line

As humans, we are wired for social connection. If we lack that deep connection or belonging, we will feel lonely—and this reaction is completely normal. When we feel lonely, especially during physical distancing and time away from campus, it can be a source of comfort to realize that we are not the only ones who are experiencing these feelings. Countless others around the world stand in solidarity. 

However, while loneliness is complicated and painful, it can be overcome. If you are feeling lonely, I hope you view this article as a bridge, not a destination. There is much to learn about loneliness, and while making a change does admittedly require effort, concrete steps can lead to a happier future.


  1. “Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19.” J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. (2020).

  2. “Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions.” Perspect Psychol Sci. (2015).

  3. “Together: The Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.” Murthy, V.

  4. “Loneliness.” (2020).

  5. “Nearly Half of Americans are Struggling With Loneliness Amid Social Distancing, and Many Don't Know Where to Find Help.” (2020).

  6. “Measuring How the Pandemic Has Impacted Loneliness.” (2020).

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