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On Campus Podcast – College Student Loneliness

Season 1 – Episode 54 – College Student Loneliness

Loneliness is a prevalent issue among college students, particularly those who are venturing away from home for the first time. Often, students hesitate to confide in mental health experts because of the social stigma associated with loneliness. This silence can exacerbate various mental health factors, including anxiety and depression. Nonetheless, administrators, faculty, staff, and even fellow students can collectively contribute to addressing loneliness on college campuses.


Episode Transcript

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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis, and this is On Campus. Today, College Students and Loneliness. I spoke with Dave Smallen at Metropolitan State University. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views express in this podcast are solely those of the guest. They do not represent the views of their employer. Hi Dave. Thank you for joining me today.

Dave Smallen: Thanks for having me.

Darren Gaddis: To get us started today, what is your educational and professional background?

Dave Smallen: Yeah, so I have a PhD in human development and family studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I’m currently a community faculty in psychology at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a researcher, I look at how people experience moments of social connection in everyday life. I look at behaviors, emotions, and perceptions that make up interactions that feel meaningful.

Darren Gaddis: Today, our conversation’s going to be about loneliness and college students. To help us ground our conversation, broadly speaking, what is loneliness?

Dave Smallen: Loneliness is an emotional experience that is a normal human emotional experience. It’s like hunger or thirst in that it signals to us that we are running lower on something that’s vital to our systems. So as social creatures, humans rely on social connection, not just for enjoyment, but really to regulate our systems, to receive support, to function really. I always like to start talking about loneliness in terms of talking about how it’s adaptive, but when loneliness becomes, that’s where we start to see health issues coming up in terms of mental health issues leading to depression or more anxiety and even overall lifespan physical health issues coming out of loneliness over time. And one way to think about loneliness is it’s really just signaling that there’s a difference between the social connection we’re experiencing and the social connection we desire. And that can be different for everyone and at different moments in our lives.

And researchers really have broken up loneliness into a few different categories. One is loneliness at the level of intimate relationships, and we might have a few people in our lives that we can open up to and be really ourselves with and receive understanding, acceptance, and care from them at that deep emotional level. And so we might feel that we don’t have enough of it. We might also be what researchers call socially lonely, and that’s having less of that bigger crowd of people that we’re friends with or that’s our family or neighbors that are in our lives. We could rely on them for practical help.

And I would think for college students, this is the crowd of people they might sit down regularly with at a dining hall table or something like that. We might not bear our souls to them, but they’re really important. And researchers have recently been talking about a sense of collective loneliness, meaning that we’re getting to the level of belonging. I don’t really feel that this culture that I’m in or this organization I’m in, this institution I’m in, this larger group that I feel like I belong to them. And so we might experience loneliness at one of those levels or across all of them, but that just shows us a really varied experience.

Darren Gaddis: How does loneliness specifically impact college students thinking about their academic performance?

Dave Smallen: It’s like any other mental health struggle. When loneliness becomes chronic, we would see the same kinds of issues in terms of academics that we would with other mental health struggles that might be bringing down students’ ability to show up with their full selves and to engage in their work. And it also impacts retention because if you’re not feeling connected on campus, you might not hang around. Ideally on a campus, a student would feel lonely and they would be able to say, “Oh, I’m not having enough of a certain kind of connection and I’m going to go out and there’s social resources on this campus for me to meet those needs.” But really it’s when willingness becomes more chronic negative cycle. Where what’ll happen is if you think about loneliness as an emotions, emotions contain not just a feeling, also these kind of related thoughts and perceptions.

And so we actually experience reality from the space of an emotion. And when we’re lonely, we’re going to be a little more vigilant to rejection or thinking, “Maybe they’re just being nice. Maybe they don’t really like me.” We might have that experience as a college student where we sit down a new group of people in a dining hall just as an example, and we’d have a friendly conversation, but we might perceive it because we’re lonely as, “They were just being nice to me. They’re not really into me,” whereas if we weren’t feeling lonely, we might’ve been like, “Yeah, really connected.” And so when that cycle happens, if we feel rejected, we’re going to be more vigilant and protective in our social interactions. And what happens over time is people start to isolate, they become depressed, you have more social anxiety, so it can contribute in those ways. So that’s really where on campus, that’s the kind of space where students are at risk.

Darren Gaddis: In following the COVID-19 pandemic, why are we still continuing to see students report loneliness at higher rates?

Dave Smallen: Yeah, I think that’s something that I think needs more teasing out. But young adults just in general right now, when the US Surgeon General put out an advisory on loneliness and social isolation earlier this year, young adults are actually in the higher risk group for loneliness, even more so than folks in the elder years, which is typically, I think there’s been a lot of resources in the last decades for older folks in terms of loneliness prevention, but normatively in terms of development, we’d expect college students to be in this developmental moment where they are transitioning, if they are traditional students on a traditional campus, they’re transitioning from their social circle at home that they might’ve been embedded in since they were little, and they’re tasked with forming new relationships, having new social interactions.

And so bridging that transition can be hard. And just normatively and also students’ identities, they’re in this space where they’re learning who they are. They might be trying out new ways of being, and they might have outgrown some of their ways of interacting or the kinds of folks they might be friends with. And they might also be looking more towards intimate relationships, more emotionally intimate, romantic partnerships. So it’s a space that you’d expect there to be some kinds of struggles or gaps in feeling connected, but loneliness has been going up actually even before the pandemic. So it’s not exactly a new issue, but it’s been exacerbated.

Darren Gaddis: And are there any specific factors on a college campus which contribute to student loneliness?

Dave Smallen: To form relationships, we need to interact with other people a certain amount, so we need a place to do that. One factor is going to be, is there a space to connect with people? So I had an experience where I only stayed for one semester is during that time the program that I was in was housed in a building off campus because their building was being renovated on campus. And so I didn’t really feel that collective sense of connection. I felt more collectively lonely because I wasn’t even going to the main campus, and this was a really large school. So there’s aspects that are like, okay, this place where students can get together and they have to have time to connect. And also this is where academics might come in, to connect you have to feel relatively safe. So if we think about when we are anxious, our minds are not really able to focus on anything but what we’re anxious about.

So if it’s finals week is coming up and it feels really high stakes, we might not be able to listen to our roommate share about something important because we’re so focused on this other thing. And if you’re really stressed, if you’re not feeling safe in any kind of way, if you feel like you might not be safe on campus because of your identity, in these situations, we’re not going to have those basics, that ease with other people that we might have, where we can be really open and we can attend to them and share about ourselves. We’re going to be a little more guarded or anxious. And that’s so really I think having a space for students to connect, having time to connect, and having safety that helps folks connect.

Darren Gaddis: How can administrators, faculty, and even fellow students help combat student loneliness on their college campus?

Dave Smallen: Yeah. So I think first and foremost, you need to learn about what is social connection like and what is loneliness like on your particular campus. There’s researchers on any campus that are going to be skilled in the kinds of methodologies that could be useful for finding out really across campus who is feeling connected, who is feeling lonely, and who’s at highest risk and what do they need in particular, because they’re going to be experts in their own experiences. So that’s first and foremost. Because loneliness can be so variable, the solutions also need to be flexible. There’s a study done by Jeffrey Hall at the University of Kansas where he looked at how many hours of interaction it took for college students to form friendships, and it took 40 to 60 hours of interaction to make a casual friend over 200 hours of interaction to feel like somebody was a close friend.

So it’s really important that students have opportunities not just to get out there and connect with each other, but to have repeated interactions. One aspect that I think is important around this is I think popularly in our culture, there’s a sense that meaningful connection has to be in person, but social connection… research really supports the social connection happens in a lot of different ways, and it certainly happens online, it happens asynchronously. So it’s important to get students to interact repeatedly. And another thing that I think is important is that there’s a thread in two that goes with this in-person connection that in popular culture that you really have to be having deep conversations to feel connected, and that can be true. I think creating a culture of support and a culture of expressing gratitude for support and appropriate forms of affection, telling people that you care about them or that you’re proud of them, celebrating each other’s successes.

These are kind of small ways that I think you can develop a culture that promotes that. And as I talked about before, safety on campus is really important. And finally, the most important I think, too, is really having strong mental health support on campus for, we’re talking a lot about getting students more social interactions, and that’s really specific to a college student population. For other populations who are really deep in that cycle of their perceptions and their thoughts being colored by loneliness, mental health support is really important. Cognitive behavioral therapy can really help folks to challenge these thoughts that, “Oh, I might be not like or being rejected.” And for college students, a lot of them are in a space where they’re in this developmental transition. They’re in a new social context. They really might just need support to bridge into new relationships and find their group on campus. And so there is research supporting that more social interaction does help college students in general, but if students are in this negative cycle, they’re going to be moving towards more social isolation or depression or social anxiety possibly.

Darren Gaddis: What else should we know about student loneliness on college campuses?

Dave Smallen: I think I would just reiterate that it’s normal to feel lonely. I think part of the college experience is having those moments, having these ups and downs, and I think for traditional students on traditional campuses, that’s most of what they’re doing is social in a lot of ways. And a social experience is the whole gamut of the joys of feeling connected to the pain of heartbreak and students are going to be going through. That’s normal. It doesn’t necessarily need to be pathologized. And it’s really, I think, really important to build that safety net for students who are moving towards the edges of those experiences that are normal, that are going to be falling into the big challenges with loneliness, where it really impacts our physical health and our mental health starts to add up, especially over the lifespan, so when it becomes chronic. So this is a time to help students gain a social network that they could hopefully have through their lives and gain some social skills, broaden their social skills to have that on board as they move into their next phase as adults.

Darren Gaddis: Dave, thank you for joining me today.

Dave Smallen: Of course. Thanks for having me.

Darren Gaddis: Thank you for listening to today’s episode. And be sure to follow, like and subscribe to On Campus – with CITI Program to stay in the know. If you enjoyed this podcast, you might also be interested in other podcasts from CITI Program, including On Research and On Tech Ethics. Please visit CITI Program’s website to learn more about all of our offerings at I invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses, subscriptions, and webinars that may be of interest to you like CITI Program’s Mental Health and College Students course. All of our content is available to you anytime through organizational and individual subscriptions.


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Meet the Guest

content contributor dave smallen

Dave Smallen, PhD – Metropolitan State University

Dave Smallen is a research psychologist with a focus on studying and communicating about relationships and human connection. He holds a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Meet the Host

Team Member darren gaddis

Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program

He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.