Thu, 18 April 2024
The Daily Ittefaq

Is loneliness a threat to democracy?

Update : 18 Mar 2024, 19:23

Loneliness is often described as a silent pandemic in Germany. The latest figures from the Federal Statistical Office indicate that one in six people over the age of 10 often feel lonely — that's around 12.2 million people. 

Loneliness is defined by psychologists as a perceived discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships, and is different from social isolation. Statistics show that in Germany young people are the worst affected: A quarter of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 say they often feel lonely.

Family Minister Lisa Paus of the Green Party has described loneliness as one of the most pressing issues of our time, not just because of the associated health risks — including a higher risk of heart disease, strokes, dementia and depression — but also because it weakens social cohesion. 

The study "Extrem Einsam" ("Extremely Lonely"), part of the Kollekt project funded by the Federal Family Affairs Ministry, suggests loneliness could also harbor a threat to democracy. Researchers found a link between loneliness and anti-democratic attitudes: An inclination toward populism, the belief in conspiracy theories, authoritarian attitudes and the approval of political rule-breaking and violence.

"These aren't causal connections, but there is a correlation," said Claudia Neu, a sociologist and one of the authors of the study. People who experience loneliness over a long period of time begin to perceive the world more negatively, as being darker and more threatening — they trust other people less, but also their environment and democratic institutions.

That is a problem, according to Neu, because democracy thrives on participation, and support for democracy is dependent on how strongly a person feels connected to society as a whole.

"The longing for community is of course still very strong, it's simply deeply rooted in us that we probably can't survive well without others," she said. "Right-wing populist or right-wing extremist parties offer a sense of community and at the same time this narrative of fear: 'Come join us, then you'll be part of our community.'"

Loneliness just one of many risk factors
Twenty-five-year-old Gabriela Grobarcikova said she was 15 when she first felt lonely. "I felt distanced from other people, a feeling that there were a lot of people around me, but the sense of a real connection was missing," she told DW. 

Grobarcikova said she did not have a stable home life and found it difficult to maintain long-term friendships, but found a sense of connection through politics. She credits the center-left politics of her parents as one reason why she did not develop anti-democratic or extremist views.

"Loneliness is a state in which there's a strong, unfulfilled desire for community and I found that through political engagement and activism. Luckily I found that in local community-based, social-democratic political circles," said Grobarcikova, who now works with a nonprofit organization to promote democratic engagement in schools.

The Kollekt study found that doubt about democracy is widespread among young people. Of the 1,008 young people aged between 16 and 23 surveyed, less than half (48%) thought that the democratic system functions well in Germany, and even fewer (40%) believed that politicians are able to meet the challenges of the future.

However, there is no empirical evidence to suggest young people today have more politically extreme views than previous generations, according to Björn Milbradt, a sociologist and expert on radicalization among young people at the German Youth Institute. 

"Today, there is the impression that young people are becoming more and more radical. But I would urge caution. There have always been radical or extremist youth movements or young people's movements," Milbradt told DW, referencing the wave of right-wing extremist violence that occurred after German reunification in the early 1990s and the West German student movement of 1968. 

What research has proven, Milbradt said, is that the likelihood of a young person becoming radicalized depends on multiple factors, not just loneliness. Socioeconomic background, an unstable home life, poor critical thinking skills and exposure to misanthropic attitudes can all play a role.

"There isn't just one factor. I think that's very important to emphasize because in the public debate there is often a tendency to view radicalization in a very one-dimensional way, that TikTok is one of the main factors radicalizing young people," he explained.

"But what you always have to say is that people are particularly radicalized by [content on] TikTok if they already have a receptiveness to certain ideologies or derogatory attitudes."

More agency for young people in politics
It's important to be vigilant about the issue of extremism among young people, Milbradt said, pointing to the 2019 Shell Youth Study which found that around a third of young people have a tendency toward right-wing populism in their attitudes. 

"That was a very alarming result and I think it still is," he said. "There are election results where the [far-right] Alternative for Germany (AfD) gets a very significant percentage of young people. In this respect, these are warning signals that we keep getting."

As far as young people are concerned, tackling loneliness is just one part of broader range of solutions needed to prevent them from developing extremist views, according to Milbradt. Political and civic education in schools, awareness about the history of Germany's Nazi past and a sense of agency within the democratic process are all key.

The authors of the Kollekt study also said politicians and civil society groups needed to make political education accessible to all and to create more opportunities for young people to participate in the democratic process.

"I think you can actually make society as a whole aware of what it means to tell a generation that will soon be in positions of power that they don't count. You can do something about that," said Milbradt.

More on this topic

More on this topic