In our age of digital connection, establishing genuine physical bonds is harder than ever. The more we connect online, the less we feel attached offline. This paradox has left the Millennial generation feeling alone and depressed at higher rates than previous generations. Ashley Kirsner had been studying the social challenges facing Millennials for some time. She started Skip The Small Talk as her solution to the loneliness faced by our generation. Skip The Small Talk is social impact startup focused on combatting the loneliness epidemic through in-person events. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup was a part of MassChallenge’s accelerator program.
Frederick Daso: What does psychology research reveal about the relationships between millennial mental health and gatherings?
Ashley Kirsner: There’s more research out there about the negative impacts of loneliness than on the positive impacts of gatherings. We know that chronic loneliness is associated with a health risk equivalent to smoking an entire pack of cigarettes a day. We know that loneliness is also associated with higher risks for neurodegeneration, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. So it’s concerning to think of the health implications of recent data suggesting that Millennials and Gen Z are the loneliest generations alive and that there’s a trend looking like they’re getting more isolated.
Daso: Which causes of loneliness in our generation can be resolved using technology? Are they cultural, social, political, and/or economic? How can we do a better job of teaching millennials skills and habits to build healthier relationships?
Kirsner: My hunch is that technology is going to help reduce loneliness in two significant ways. One is by boosting awareness of in-person events. That’s how Skip the Small Talk started. I posted the event to Facebook, and it blew up. Now, we use Facebook and other online platforms like Meetup, Reddit, and Eventbrite. Just by posting online, we’ve been selling out events regularly. People are hungry for events where they feel like there’s a chance to connect with others in a meaningful way, genuinely, so the most significant obstacle I’ve personally found is just awareness. The human drive to connect often takes care of the rest.
The second way I think technology is currently reducing loneliness is by providing a means to connect that has a lower barrier to entry than in-person social events. That’s helping a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise access significant events, whether for economic, psychological, or logistical reasons. For instance, plenty of folks in disability communities create deep friendships online when they might otherwise feel very isolated.
I think the real problem comes in when folks exclusively use the internet to communicate and never have the ability to move to in-person interactions. I believe the actual work to be done isn’t so much in reducing reliance on technology, but instead on working to remove the more systemic barriers for people to attend in-person events, including cost and accessibility. People are flocking to technology for their connection-based needs because that’s one of the best options for a lot of people right now. We can’t expect to take that away from them without offering a more compelling option.
This was my logic in creating both in-person and online events for Skip the Small Talk, in accommodating both the folks who can attend in person as well as folks who would prefer to connect online. The online events started from necessity due to COVID-19. Yet, I realize that there are so many people out there who want to communicate in person. I don’t think those people should be left out while we event organizers figure out better ways to be more accessible.
Daso: Is there a growing trend of loneliness among the millennial age group/demographic? Where is this loneliness more prevalent geographically?
Yes! Millennials seem to be getting lonelier. And loneliness is most prevalent in big cities. Part of the reason is that in big cities, it’s expensive to spend time in spaces where you might meet other people. I also personally think a contributing factor is that when you have so many options of people to hang out with, the paradox of choice takes over. You’re less satisfied hanging out with any particular person. When you have so many options available, it’s easy to end up flitting from social interaction to social interaction, trying to optimize for the “perfect social experience.” Still, ironically, you end up less satisfied than you would be if you had been investing in fewer, but more meaningful, long-term friendships.
Daso: Has there been an increased rate in the usage of mental health services among millennials, given loneliness is extremely prevalent? What are the common reasons why if so?
Kirsner: Yes. Millennials are seeking mental health more often than any generation before them. A whopping 35% of millennials have received mental healthcare, according to a 2018 study. Millennials are often seeking out help for anxiety and depression, and a lot of people speculate that the uptick in mental health services for millennials is due to an increase in usage of social media. I think that explains part of that increase. Still, I think another more optimistic reason that often gets overlooked is that millennials are also destigmatizing mental healthcare compared to older generations. They’re also using social media to talk openly about mental health. I think a lot of writing about mental health in millennials is very “gloom and doom,” but I think there’s a lot of hope to be had if we look at how millennials are coping.
Daso: How are your events designed to promote healthy pro-social behavior?
Kirsner: We host highly structured social events designed around question prompt cards with questions on them like, “What was your high school experience like?” and, “Describe yourself through the eyes of someone who cares about you.” The structure of the event is designed based on psychology research, and the questions themselves are all designed to encourage conversation about internal states instead of just facts since the former tends to be more comfortable to connect over and more enjoyable. We also have people take turns when they talk to allow people to focus on the person who’s talking instead of wondering what they should say next entirely. We include plenty of reminders to be mindful and to have compassion for yourself and others since those are associated with more considerable distress tolerance. And a normal part of human interaction, especially if you’re already feeling lonely, involves some level of distress, however minor. So we want to give people the tools to cope with that. Relatedly, we make sure everything we do is trauma-informed. At our events, you always have easy ways to opt-out of any interaction or any question, and we normalize saying “no” to people. We prioritize safety and comfort at our events because we think that’s the most effective way to help people open up. You can’t expect people to be vulnerable to strangers if they’re feeling psychologically unsafe.
We also have a portion of the event where we explicitly but gently challenge some perceptions that people tend to have about how sharing vulnerably will be received by others. After the first conversation, we take an anonymous poll to see how people felt about the first conversation. At most events, we get a handful of people reporting that they feel like they “overshared” in that first conversation. But at most events, zero people report feeling that their partner overshared. It’s always incredible to see the looks on people’s faces as they realize that just because you feel like you overshared doesn’t mean that whoever you were talking to perceived it that way. In other words, you can generally share a lot more with others than you might think, provided that the other person is opting into it. People seem to take that learning with them beyond the events.
Excitingly, we also have some preliminary data from a third-party researcher from Boston University, Dr. Jasmine Mote, who asked to study us as an intervention for loneliness. It’s just preliminary, but it suggests that our events are reducing social anxiety, depression, and loneliness, not only at our event but after it, too. I heard a story of someone who went to a Skip the Small Talk and felt so inspired that he went home to his roommate that he’d been friends with for years, and had a heart-to-heart until 3 AM that catalyzed a much closer friendship for them. It seems that we’re not just helping people connect— we’re also challenging some of their underlying beliefs about connections that get in the way of them feeling close to people in their everyday lives.
Daso: You’ve mentioned you’ve created question prompt cards as a part of your product. How are these cards used in small and large gatherings, and in one-on-one situations?
Kirsner: We’re working on designing our question prompt cards to be sold on their own, separately from the events. I’ve given out a few sample packs, and I’ve gotten so much great feedback on them— a user told me he used them when he was on a long car ride with his friends for a bachelor party, and they bonded over some intense and poignant childhood stories they never knew about each other. I’ve heard of a couple using them on a third date and having the most pleasant and connecting conversation they’d had up until that point that helped them get to know each other more deeply than their first two dates of small talk. I’ve heard of people using them with their families to listen to parts of their lives that they would never have thought to ask about. It’s heartening to see how willing and ready people are to change the way they interact with each other, especially when there’s so much inertia to overcome if you’ve been interacting with the same person in the same way over a long time. Having a tool like Skip the Small Talk cards seems to be enough of a nudge to get people out of habits that have been ossified over the years, and I see that as a testament to just how adaptable humans can be.
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