The Rise of Teen Loneliness: How Can You Help?

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is a painful emotional state that occurs when there is a discrepancy between one's desired and one's achieved patterns of social interaction. Those who perceive themselves as lonely may not necessarily lack social relationships, but instead may consider their relationships as inadequate or poor in quality (Goosby et al., 2013). This is a difficult situation for teens, parents, and teachers; however, there are several available resources that can help you get through it.

Are teens experiencing loneliness more than before?

In 36 out of 37 countries, feelings of loneliness among teenagers rose sharply between 2012 and 2018, with higher increases among girls, according to research published in late 2021 in the Journal of Adolescence.

Beginning in the early 2010s, loneliness, depression, and self-harm increased sharply among U.S. adolescents, the study found. This disconcerting news is particularly shocking, given that levels of loneliness and depression had remained unchanged or down for decades prior to 2012.

The reason?

The study authors hypothesized that the rise of smartphone access and adoption in the early 2010’s directly and negatively affected the psychological well-being of adolescents. The idea is that adolescent social life has shifted, relying heavily on online interaction at the expense of the deeper ties developed through in-person interaction. This is an argument that has been debated and researched since the rise of the rise of the World Wide Web and again with the rise of social media, long before smartphones.

The results?

The authors found that levels of “school loneliness,” an established predictor of depression and mental health issues, rose globally in tandem with the rise of the smartphone—a correlation which, being consistent across the over one million students surveyed, should be given some merit and attention. The authors, however, cautioned that their study does not prove any causal relationships; allowing a child to use their smartphone will not necessarily cause them to become more lonely, or vice versa.

Further, the study did not account for the COVID pandemic, a unique situation which required teens (and adults) to use online interaction to remain in touch.

So, as the world’s youth learn how to integrate the new norm of online interaction into their social lives, taking away the smartphone or tablet may not necessarily be the solution for those struggling with mental health issues. However, this study highlights the importance of talking to lonely or depressed adolescents about their online interactions and how it’s impacting their social lives.

Lastly, the premise of the study underlines a cold truth—adolescent students are experiencing depression and loneliness on a scale unseen in recent generations. So, what can be done? Some empirical studies offer direction.

Tips for reducing teen loneliness

  1. Limit social media use. The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reports that cutting down on social media use leads to significant reductions in loneliness and depression, in as few as three weeks. However, before blanketly implementing social media bans, talk with your teen. The nature of social interaction has shifted recently, so it’s important to avoid assuming it is the root of their issues (it may be their only channel of communication with some friends). Teach them about what healthy social interaction looks and feels like, and ask them to discuss how their online social interaction relates to that. From there, work together to determine the proper path forward.
  2. Spend time volunteering or participating in extracurricular activities. Research shows that doing things for others offers mental and physical health benefits and helps people feel less isolated and alone. Participating in new social opportunities like school clubs increases the likelihood of developing new friendships.
  3. Adopt a pet. Multiple studies, including one done during the pandemic, show that interaction with household pets reduces isolation and increase feelings of connection. Use that emotional lift afforded by your furry companions to reignite the process of developing human social relationships.
  4. Exercise. A review study found that physical activity in social settings—like sports or a hiking club—helps people feel more connected and enhances well-being. The body of knowledge on the relationship between physical activity and mental well-being is robust and conclusive; go forth and be active!
  5. Get enough sleep. A 2018 study in the journal Nature found that sleep loss is significantly associated with social withdrawal and loneliness. People with lower sleep quality were less likely to engage with others and more likely to feel lonely. We all know, however, that teens have an uncanny ability to sleep in; keep an eye on their sleep patterns to make sure it is not due to social withdrawal, isolation, or depression. For some tips, this scientific article has guidelines for improving teen’s sleep.
  6. Visit a therapist. Working with a mental health professional can help teens and pinpoint causes of loneliness, such as social anxiety or lack of self-esteem, and learn strategies for overcoming isolation. Not sure where to start? Read this list of resources for children’s mental health. Or, call your health insurance company and ask them to coordinate mental or behavioral health resources and providers. Going to a therapist that is in your insurance’s network of providers is the best way to keep costs down so you can have consistent, convenient interactions with behavioral health specialists.