• Josh Packard

We’re in the middle of an epidemic. But it’s not the one you’re thinking of.

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

In the months before the emergence of Covid-19, Springtide Research Institute conducted research that revealed troubling trends of social isolation and loneliness among young people (ages 13–25). In fact, those numbers were at an all-time high even before Americans retreated from social gatherings.

The research from Springtide, available in Belonging: Reconnecting America’s Loneliest Generation, confirms what studies by Cigna and others have been finding. Namely, for the first time in history, our youngest generations are more lonely and isolated than any other group of people, and their levels of loneliness and social isolation are at all-time highs. Our research extended those findings down to 13-year-olds, using a nationally representative sample.

As troubling as those numbers are, they weren’t that shocking given the previous, recent research in this area.

What stunned us was when we started looking into the protective or buffering effects. We wanted to know: What are the antidotes to this social epidemic?

We suspected we would see a distinct difference in experiences of isolation between young people who were involved in religious gatherings as opposed to those who were not. We fully anticipated that this kind of participation would provide both social and existential protections against disconnection and meaninglessness. We analyzed these variables largely as part of our confirmatory process. That’s how sure we were.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Attendance at religious gatherings such as worship, Scripture studies, youth groups, prayer groups, meditations, etc., had ZERO protective effects.

We were so stunned by this that I remember asking our research team to run the analysis again (and then again after that). But every time it came back exactly the same. (We have a good research team!).

Searching for answers, we turned to the qualitative data and other questions in the survey. We now had two puzzles. Why are young people so isolated when they appear to be hyperconnected? And why doesn’t attending a group religious gathering make any difference?

Our data revealed a vital connection between the decline of institutional trust and the rising importance of relationships. Attendance doesn’t matter because young people don’t trust institutions. The evidence on this was clear.

However, when that attendance was coupled with a relationship with a trusted adult at that same place, we saw clear buffering effects. We discovered that young people who have a relationship with at least one trusted adult in a religious institution are more trusting, less isolated, less stressed, and more confident about their future.

The implications of this research are clear. In an era of low institutional trust, leaders who work with young people need to move away from institutionally driven programs and start leading with relationships in innovative and sophisticated ways. The old models, once so effective, simply don’t work as the world has shifted around us.

Josh Packard, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, and the Head of Applied Sociology for the Global Center for Religious Research. Find him on twitter @drjoshpackard.

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