Teen Loneliness: A Secondary Pandemic
Teens are social animals, prone to roaming in packs and wired for connection with one another. But here’s a surprising truth: They’re often the loneliest creatures among us.
Teen loneliness is especially prevalent now. The pandemic has uniquely impacted teens by physically distancing them from the very touchpoints that promote normal adolescent development like school, friends, romantic relationships, jobs, and time away from parents. In addition to social isolation, teens are struggling with a lack of structure and a disruption of routine.
Together, these factors are contributing to a secondary pandemic among teens: loneliness.
The Reality — and Risks — of Teen Loneliness
While many adults assume that the teen years are easy, carefree and fun, the opposite is often the case. Many teens are stressed, anxious, depressed and lonely.
Teen loneliness isn’t new. More and more research points to a rise in loneliness among adolescents, with some surveys finding between 30-60 percent of teens reporting an increase in loneliness.
According to a large-scale BBC study conducted in 2018, four in ten young people classified themselves as “pretty lonely,” saying that they often felt misunderstood, sad, detached and experienced fear of missing out (FOMO).
The survey found loneliness to be higher in the 16-to-24-year-olds than in any other age category, including older adults.
While that may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense when you consider that today’s communities are less close-knit and families are smaller than they used to be, translating into fewer opportunities to create close bonds with siblings, cousins and neighbors.
The medical and psychological consequences of loneliness can be significant, including:
An increased risk of depression, potentially leading to suicide;
Poor sleep, resulting in poor cognition and inability to focus;
Emotional blunting (a dulling of one’s feelings to the point that one neither feels up or down); and
Inability to self-regulate, contributing to overeating, excessive drinking, smoking or drug use, which are often used to self-soothe.
Any and all of these carry secondary medical risks, including a suppressed immune system, obesity, increased cholesterol, high blood pressure, addiction, and even an increased risk of cancer.
What’s Causing Teen Loneliness?
Across all age groups, loneliness stems from three basic causes:
Loss of a loved one or loss of attachment to a person, job or relationship;
Feeling excluded from a group, which decreases their self-esteem; and/or
A sense of disconnection or isolation — a perceived individual experience of detachment, which can happen even when physically surrounded by others.
Teens may be more susceptible to any of these causes due to their developmental stage, which involves discovering who they are and how they fit into the world. It’s a process often accompanied by a lot of drama, loss, changes in relationship status and fear of social rejection.
Social interaction is critical at this juncture in teen development, as it lets them try out different ways of being, thinking with a new group. The inherent drama that can come with these interactions increases the risk of experiencing loneliness.
Teens face two additional challenges in dealing with rejection, loss or isolation: For one, they haven’t yet developed adult coping skills to deal with their feelings, which can feel overwhelming. Secondly, their brains aren’t fully developed enough to use higher-level rational thinking to regulate intense feelings, reactions and impulses. (This explains why FOMO can be stronger for teens than adults.)
Many teens experience profound social anxiety, which further fuels their loneliness. For these teens, it’s easier to hide behind social media than to attempt actual (albeit perceived riskier) connection with peers.
How to Help Teens Experiencing Loneliness
While teen loneliness is both prevalent and serious, the good news is that there are remedies that can, at the very least, mitigate its intensity. Following are some ways to help teens who are experiencing loneliness:
1. Encourage them to look beyond themselves. The oxytocin released in the brain during the process of giving is instrumental in feeling attached. Many teens benefit from volunteering, finding it rewarding to find — and get behind — a cause they believe in. Even giving back in small ways, for example, helping an elderly neighbor shovel snow, can be extremely beneficial.
2. Suggest that they join a group where they can connect with others experiencing the same feelings or sharing common interests. In response to the pandemic, many groups have moved to virtual meetings, which expands the number of possibilities open to your teen. Offer to help your teen find a group that appeals to them.
3. Get a pet. An ever-increasing body of research supports the value of pets for emotional wellbeing. In addition to being a source of unconditional love, pets provide a consistent sense of attachment. This attachment releases oxytocin in the brain, creating a soothing effect for teens.
4. Teach them about mindfulness and meditation, which foster a connection to their inner selves. This sense of feeling grounded is foundational for teens to establish and maintain healthy relationships with others.
5. Don’t be too quick to condemn social media. A January 2020 CNBC article reported that 73% of Gen Z “sometimes or always feels alone,” and that 71% of heavy social media users report feelings of loneliness. Both of these are significant numbers. But drawing the conclusion that social media causes loneliness is a stretch because we can’t know for sure if teens are hopping onto social media because they feel lonely — or if they feel lonely because they’re spending so much time on social media. Correlation is not causation. Also, social media can facilitate connection for lonely teens.
6. Encourage them to talk. Whether a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt/uncle or close friend, teens need someone they consider a trusted confidante. Sometimes, that person is a therapist, who can provide a safe, objective environment for teens to feel comfortable opening up and sharing their honest feelings. Helping teens understand the source of their loneliness is key to helping them address it.
7. Find opportunities to create shared hobbies or activities that you can enjoy together. Bake. Build. Play. Spending time with family can be incredibly beneficial for teens, even if they might balk about it at first.
8. Help them create healthy routines and find healthy outlets. It’s critical for teens to sleep and exercise — both in the right amounts (not too little; not too much). They do what we do, so model healthy habits, like eating nutritious meals and enjoying indulgences in moderation. Teens are prone to take in what they see, even when they (pretend) not to listen.
9. Show them the joy that can come from immersing yourself in music or the creative arts, reading a great novel or enjoying a feel-good movie. Consumed in the right amount, these activities have powerful healing properties.
10. Once the pandemic is behind us, encourage your teen to look for new — or renewed — opportunities for connection within the community. With an understanding that transitions can be particularly tricky for teens, offer emotional and logistical support as they reenter their social worlds.
While these tips are designed specifically with teens in mind, they can work well at any age or life stage.
On the Bright Side
Loneliness can be incredibly painful, and it should never be dismissed or discounted. But there’s a bright side. Loneliness is a perception, not a permanent condition, one that can be worked through and overcome through increased involvement, interaction and, if appropriate, professional guidance.
And there’s even a small silver lining. The BBC study found that empathy increases among teens who experience loneliness. Despite the challenges that come with feeling lonely, it may actually foster a greater ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. Talking with others who’ve experienced similar feelings can be very validating. It can also foster self-esteem, empowering your teen to develop stronger and healthier connections throughout their lifetime.
It’s OK to ask for help.
*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*
If you’re interested in learning more about psychotherapy for your adolescent — or parenting support for yourself — please contact us by submitting this form or calling us at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.