OPINION: Lonely day in the neighborhood

Dylan Reynolds

For a brief moment this spring, there was a trend of social media posts that went something like this: “Places where reality seems altered at [insert college name],” which was followed by a list of locations at that school where normal standards of existence don’t seem to apply.

No matter which campus was in the post, there was some consistency in what types of places made the list. Dining halls late at night, dive bars, empty academic buildings – places where people behave abnormally or something just feels off. At Kent State, one tweet noted Quaker Steak and Lube on karaoke night, where some singers adopt flashy stage personas, and East Main Street Thursday through Sunday, where students wander up and down the street seeking parties.

College campuses can, indeed, be bizarre places. A lot of young people are away from home for the first time, caught in a whirlwind of newfound freedom and unorthodox ideas. Residence halls tend to be the epicenter of this whirlwind.

Perhaps the strangest thing about residence halls is that so many students don’t know their neighbors. When you’re living in a dorm, you’re living in very close proximity to other people. When you lie down in your lofted dorm room bed at night, chances are there’s someone in the adjacent room doing the same thing, lying three just feet away from you, separated by only the wall. Yet many dorm residents will never talk to their next-door neighbor.

This is a problem. Knowing one’s neighbors can be the difference between feeling like a stranger and being part of a community. In a place like a college campus, where so many students fall into loneliness and depression, the impact can be enormous. Psychologists at the University of Southampton in the UK found, in a yearlong study, that the lonelier college students felt, the more likely they were to experience an increase in anxiety, stress, depression and general mental health problems over that time.

Lack of community causes loneliness, and loneliness can lead down a dark road.

But maybe this problem isn’t so bizarre. Maybe it’s a reflection of a larger trend in communities across America.

A Pew Research Center study from earlier this year found that more than two-thirds of Americans would say they know none or only some of their neighbors. Just five percent said they know all their neighbors, and 26 percent said they know most of them.

In 2015, economist Joe Cortright wrote a report for City Observatory, a think tank devoted to data-driven analysis of cities, where he said that nearly a third of people report no interactions with neighbors and only about 20 percent say they spend time regularly with neighbors.

Culture is evolving. Where people once met with neighbors to discuss community news and stories, we now log onto Facebook for the same purpose. Information-gathering, once a primary reason for knowing your neighbors, has been outsourced to the internet. But there is really no replacement for that feeling of community that results from face-to-face interaction with those around us.

Beyond the information-gathering component, neighbor interaction can introduce us to people outside our age group who we wouldn’t see if we only engaged with the community digitally. There’s an old man with fascinating stories and hobbies on every street who’s just waiting to share them with someone.

We all need to talk to our neighbors more. Maybe we’d learn something new about the neighborhood – or residence hall – that we wouldn’t have heard otherwise. Maybe we’d be able to get help for someone who doesn’t leave the house much and is quietly struggling with mental illness. Or maybe we’d just make a new friend. In any case, we’d be drawing closer to each other and strengthening the communities we’ve always wanted to be proud of.

Dylan Reynolds is an assigning editor. Contact him at [email protected]