When we think of someone who might be lonely or isolated, we tend to think of an elderly person living alone and not having many social connections. Social isolation occurs when one withdraws and becomes disconnected from family, friends, and community. However, surprisingly, statistically, it is not the elderly who are most likely to describe themselves as lonely.
In fact, according to the BBC Worldwide Loneliness Experiment, in 2018 (pre-COVID-19 pandemic), levels of loneliness were the highest among 16-24-year-olds, with 40% saying they often or very often felt lonely as compared to 27% for over 75-year-olds.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a social deprivation epidemic. As a result of lockdowns and social distancing, many of us experienced social isolation and its effects and saw firsthand its impact on our mental health. According to the 2021 Harvard Graduate School of Education report, over 1 in 3 Americans experienced “serious loneliness” during the pandemic.
However, as research shows, young people were struggling the most with the mental health effects of social isolation and the stress of a pandemic. As schools closed, social isolation became a major challenge for teenagers, as many were unable to interact physically with friends and peers. Social media and gaming have become the main way for young people to maintain social interactions and human connections.
Part of the reason teenagers feel isolated is developmental - their brains haven’t developed enough to allow them to regulate their emotions fully. So everything is perceived and felt more intensely.
At this time, young adults are in the process of self-discovery - learning who they are and where they belong and shaping their identity. This is often a confusing and stressful stage in life accompanied by formation, change, and ups and downs in social connections and relationships, making for a life filled with drama.
They are going through the stage in life where being loved and accepted is essential to forming one’s identity. They may not have the social skills and coping mechanisms necessary to deal with such challenging situations, like adjusting to or tolerating periods of isolation.
During the turbulent adolescence stage, when feelings and emotions are amplified, peer approval is extremely important. If a teen has trouble dealing with actual or potential social rejection, they may resort to social withdrawal as a coping mechanism. A lack of social skills or social anxiety may further exacerbate the fears.
As digital natives, teens already spend a lot of time socializing online. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, in 2022, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone, 90% to a desktop or laptop computer, and 80% to a gaming console. Further, whereas 92% of teens used the internet daily in 2014-15, in 2022, this increased to 97%.
In the case of social isolation, many children interact with others primarily online. This means that children and adolescents must resort to technology for human connection. According to the Pew Research Center survey, the share of teens who say they are online almost constantly has almost doubled - from 24% in 2014-15 to 46% in 2022. There is an important place for social media, but not when used to hide teen loneliness.
Every parent hopes that their teenager develops solid friendships and feels connected to the community and world around them. But what if your child spends most of the time alone, does not leave the house, or worse, says they have no friends?
Everyone is different when it comes to social contact, how sociable they are, and how much time they like to spend with others.
Signs of teenage isolation and chronic loneliness are not always easy to spot - some of the things to look out for include:
Research increasingly recognizes that individuals experiencing social isolation are at increased risk of disease. Social isolation leads to higher levels of cortisol and worse cognitive development. There is, for example, a strong association between social isolation and anxiety and depression in teenagers.
Social isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably. However, they are different. Social isolation is the lack of social interactions or people to interact with. Loneliness is feeling alone, regardless of the amount of social contact - a sense of isolation, detachment, and alienation. One can live alone and not feel lonely or socially isolated, just as someone can feel lonely while being surrounded by other people.
According to research, the overall health risks of prolonged social isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation and loneliness have been estimated to shorten a person’s life span by as many as 15 years.
Loneliness affects physical and mental health. Its effects may include the following:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise parents to help their teens stay active and connected to prevent social isolation.
This includes encouraging your teen to 'play' outdoors, to have regular breaks from studying and their online world, and to maintain their physical and mental health by having healthy relationships and reaching out to friends and family.
Parents must be supportive and understand if their teen is experiencing social isolation.
Acknowledging and validating your teen's feelings of social isolation is important. Ignoring them or minimizing their experiences can make things worse. It will be a learning process but talk with them compassionately and calmly, listen actively, try to understand why they are feeling lonely, and explore their feelings together in an open-minded and empathetic way.
Be careful not to be overprotective - parents can sometimes make the situation worse by preventing their teen from exploring new social connections or engaging in new activities - try to avoid this as it may force them to spend time alone or isolated from others, and this can make things worse - instead try to encourage positive relationships with children and teens of a similar age group.
Encouraging your teen to engage in physical activity can reduce the effects of social isolation and help improve their physical health, mental health, mood, and overall well-being. Activities like outdoor sports, hiking, or simply taking a walk can help.
Encourage your teen's engagement in self-care activities such as yoga, meditation, or journaling. Like sports, these can help your teen manage their emotions, reduce feelings of isolation and, in general, promote their mental health and well-being.
The role of social interactions in mental health and well-being is well documented. As Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says: "How happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”
You can encourage your teen's social interaction. They can reach out to friends, family, and support networks. You can motivate them to participate in online or offline communities that align with their interests or to join clubs or social groups related to their hobbies.
Social media has been shown to impact mental health negatively. Yet, don't dismiss your teen's online relationships. While online relationships may not be the same as that face-to-face, they can still provide meaningful connections. Do not discourage your teen from forming safe online connections, but make sure that they balance them with real-life relationships and be aware of screen time and the sometimes negative impact of too much social media.
Encourage your teen to take initiative - reach out to friends and family, or participate in activities that interest them. Empowering your teen to control their social connections can help them feel more connected and less socially isolated.
If your teen struggles with social anxiety or has a mental health condition or other mental health issues that may be contributing to their social isolation, learning more about the issue can help. Further, trying to seek professional help and advice from mental health professionals will enable you as a parent to help manage the situation and help reduce their social isolation.
Additional ideas that you and your teen can try to reduce feelings of social isolation and loneliness include:
The mission of Clearfork Academy is to lead adolescents to a new legacy. We offer a Christ-centered residential treatment program for adolescent boys and girls aged 13- 17 years old. We provide help for teens experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions and substance use treatment.
We offer a clinically based, therapeutic environment for young adults struggling with the physical, mental, social, and spiritual bonds of chemical dependency and mental health issues. Ours is a structured and supportive environment to include individual, family, and group therapies and evidence-based programming. The whole family joins us for therapeutic activities on the weekend so we can provide an all-encompassing approach to achieve long-term recovery.
For expert help for your teenager's chronic loneliness and to find out more, contact us today.