Solutions for Adolescent Loneliness

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School-based Psychologist

Research abounds to attest to increased incidences of drug experimentation and suicides among k-12 school aged children and college aged students as it relates to COVID-19. Restrictions in physical movement involving travel, entertainment, sports and recreation. Not to mention the mask mandates required in many states, districts and counties to access school, community, health and recreational services. Now, just above the horizon is the potential for universal vaccination regulations and passports to verify compliance and gain entrance into educational institution, schools and universities to gain access to publicly funded educational services.

One does not hesitate to deduce that these environmental factors surely can give rise to increases in adolescent loneliness. But guess what?

According to a study conducted by Twenge, Haidt, and Blake (et al) that was published in the Journal of Adolescence, (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2021.06.006) the trends for increased incidences of adolescent loneliness has steadily risen in cohorts from the years 2012, 2015 and 2018, across a majority of English speaking countries. These researchers found, “worldwide, nearly twice as many adolescents in 2018 versus 2012 had elevated levels of school loneliness.”

Before we discuss further school loneliness, let’s define it. School loneliness is “also known as school belonging or school connectedness in its inverse.” This is an important term as researchers have determined much like SAT  or ACT scores as a predictor of college success and FSIQ (Full Scale Intelligence Quotient) as a predictor of significant life outcomes; school loneliness is an “established predictor of low well-being and depression among adolescents.” Further experts can later extrapolate upon the data to associate school loneliness with “reduced quality of life, work productivity and increased health care utilization” well into adulthood.

The empirical experiences of many in the teaching, helping and advocacy professions, as with the researchers of this study, opine that higher unemployment rates predicted lower school loneliness.   This may be interpreted to mean that the adolescents were more likely to socially interact and enjoy the company of nuclear and extended family members and friends during bouts of their unemployment.

An interesting nugget of information gleamed in reading the study was this:  the environmental factors related to oppression and adopted by social justice warriors as cause for many ills of the world “income inequality, gross domestic product (GDP) and family size were not significantly related to school loneliness when matched by year.”

In fact, the researchers  concluded that “school loneliness was positively correlated with negative affect and negatively correlated with positive affect and life satisfaction.” This statement may give credence to support  the notion that  individual determination, attitude, values and beliefs  may have far greater influence on one’s emotions and behaviors than often presented by the establishment  and major media outlets.

They also observed that globally, the psychological well-being of adolescents aged 14-15 years began to decline near the year 2012. The researchers theorized  that this  phenomenon was “in conjunction with the rise of Smartphone access, [social media, digital, gaming] and increased internet use.”  Interestingly, they examined longitudinal data of adolescents in English speaking countries such as the US, Canada and England to find sharp increases in loneliness, depression and self-harm even though the trend line for loneliness and depression were “unchanged or down for years or decades before.”

Prior to the lockdowns resulting in restrictions in physical movement, reduced access to public facilities, limitations on in-person sports, entertainment and recreational activities, and full-fledged and/or partial closures of in-person educational and  learning institutions; adolescents and young teens were found to be negatively impacted from a psychological well-being perspective. In 2018, the researchers identified data to demonstrate that the “average adolescent in 2018, had fewer opportunities to socialize in person and more opportunities to socialize online than the average adolescent in 2000.”

The research team astutely suggest, based upon the underlying data presented, that “they had less opportunity for an activity (in person social interaction) that protects against loneliness and more opportunity for an activity that does not,” such as online social, digital and gaming media.

Moving Forward

Given what was presented in this article on pre-COVID-19 adolescent loneliness, the challenges related to the 2019-2020 COVID lockdowns and restrictions in movement, and the imminent restrictions of personal liberty in the future, what can we do to build our child’s resilience such that they may be impervious to the risks associated with environmental factors that may lead to increased feelings of loneliness?

  1. Get out of the house/school and enjoy nature.

Research shows that regular exposure to outdoor nature, the countryside and outdoor activities increase the production of natural body chemicals that elicit sensations of pleasure and joy. The outdoors can improve self-esteem and reduce feelings of depression, anger, and tension, according to a review of research published in the journal Extreme Physiology & Medicine in 2013.

The benefits seen with green settings were not solely due to the type of activities that being outdoors allows (freedom of movement, burning off hyperactivity, dynamic stimulation, etc.)—but were due to the green setting itself (Kuo & Taylor, 2004).  Further, everyday exposure to green settings (the park, countryside, nature) can be used effectively to treat certain childhood ailments resulting in ongoing reductions in symptoms after regular exposure to the countryside, parks, or nature (Taylor &Kuo, 2011).

  • Take guided walks outdoors.
    • Allow child to complete homework outside.
    • Have picnics or Sunday dinners in the backyard, outside, or in the park.
    • Set up a bird feeder.
    • Paint a fence, rake and haul leaves.
    • Explore outdoor activities: four-wheeling, biking, trail walking, running, swimming, fishing, etc.

2. Consider adopting a pet.

Literature reviews of research funded by the National Institutes of Health “found evidence for an association between pet ownership and a wide range of emotional health benefits from childhood pet ownership; particularly for self-esteem and loneliness for children.

Studies also showed evidence of an association between pet ownership and educational and cognitive [intellectual development] benefits.” Finally, “studies on pet ownership and social development provided evidence for an association with increased social competence; social networks; social interaction and social play behavior.” Please see Purewal, Christley, Kordas, et al for additional information (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, February 27, 2017).

3. Limit screen time, but do not cut-off entirely.

Twenge, Haidt, and Blake (et al) argue that parents should limit Smartphone usage but do not cut-off cold turkey as children may feel that they are missing out on activities for which their are partaking. They may also feel excluded.

I hope this information has proven helpful for you, your child, and your family and loved ones as you navigate these perilous times. Please take care and God bless.

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Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA http://www.ishareknowledge.com is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya at ishareknowledge dot com

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