How to Recognize Loneliness in Teenagers

According to recent research, young people suffer from loneliness far more than any other age group. In fact, surveys show that loneliness in teenagers and young adults is more prevalent than in senior citizens.

As a result, the emotional pain associated with feeling lonely can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Despite being the most connected generation when it comes to technology, young people are at the highest risk of loneliness and social isolation.

Surveys Show That Youth Are the Loneliest Generation

Surveys find higher levels of loneliness in young people across cultures, countries, and genders. The global insurer and health services company Cigna surveyed 20,000 Americans for a 2018 report on loneliness. The report found that the overall national loneliness score in the United States was surprisingly high: 44 on a 20-to-80 scale.

But loneliness and social isolation was most common among youth ages 18 to 22. Known as Generation Z, this group had loneliness scores of about 48, compared with scores around 39 for those 72 and older. (People in the middle of the age spectrum had lower loneliness scores.)

In addition, a British project called the BBC Loneliness Experiment surveyed 55,000 people. And again, the survey found the highest levels of loneliness in teenagers and adolescents. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, 40 percent reported that they often or very often felt lonely. For those over age 75, the number was only 27 percent.

Moreover, in the BBC survey, older people remembered young adulthood as the time when they felt loneliest. So loneliness in teenagers might not be a new phenomenon.

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Why Is There More Loneliness in Teenagers?

Loneliness in teens is heightened by a number of factors. These include the following:

  • The part of the teen brain that regulates emotions is still maturing. Therefore, teens feel the negative emotional impact of loneliness more intensely.
  • As children, we are rarely alone. Thus, teenagers don’t feel comfortable being solitary. In addition, teens haven’t had time yet to learn coping skills for dealing with loneliness.
  • During adolescence, a lonely teenager may feel that everyone else is having a great time, while they are all alone. And social media posts showing others’ “perfect” lives add to this feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • The natural process of teen identity formation can create feelings of isolation. Therefore, some amount of loneliness in teenagers is normal.
  • Loneliness in teenagers is sometimes a result of social anxiety.

The Impact of Loneliness in Teenagers and ‘Disconnected Youth’

Prominent experts recognize the potential mental health consequences of loneliness in teenagers. In fact, the US Department of Education classifies young people ages 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school as “disconnected youth.” According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Measure of America, one in nine teens and young adults are in this category.

Furthermore, the former surgeon general, physician Vivek Murthy, was particularly concerned about the issue of loneliness. Murthy believes that an epidemic of loneliness is one of the most critical public health issues facing America today. Hence, he is writing a book and creating an institute focused around this problem.

Loneliness in teenagers is closely related to depression. In the BBC survey, feelings of chronic loneliness were associated with an increased risk of depression a year later.

Research shows that lonely people are less happy, less satisfied, and more pessimistic. In addition, loneliness is a contributing factor in the development of alcohol abuse.

Therefore, an isolated teenager may be at higher risk of depression and/or substance abuse. Moreover, loneliness and teenage alienation can result in a higher risk of suicide attempts.

When Do Teens Feel Loneliest?

We often think of winter in cold climates as the loneliest time of year. But in summer, when teens are out of school, they may find that loneliness is worse than during the rest of the year. When their peers are traveling, working, or away on vacation, teenage isolation can increase.

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How Loneliness in Teenagers Affects Physical Health 

Loneliness doesn’t just make people sad. It also makes them sick.

One study found that loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Hence, it is even more dangerous to overall health than obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution. Another study found that loneliness and social isolation lead to a 30 percent increase in the risk of premature death.

Loneliness impairs health by raising levels of stress and inflammation. As a result, the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and dementia increases. Moreover, loneliness has been shown to lower immunity and disrupt sleep. In addition, loneliness creates metabolic and hormonal imbalances.

“We’re seeing a lack of human connection, which ultimately leads to a lack of vitality—or a disconnect between mind and body. We must change this trend by reframing the conversation to be about ‘mental wellness’ and ‘vitality’ to speak to our mental-physical connection. When the mind and body are treated as one, we see powerful results.”

—David M. Cordani, president and chief executive officer of Cigna

Empathy and Loneliness in Teenagers

Loneliness creates empathy, according to the BBC study. Researchers measured two types of empathy. One type was empathy for people’s physical pain. Hence, researchers asked participants how sorry they felt for others who had burned themselves or otherwise been injured. And there was no difference in measures of empathy for physical pain between the people who felt more or less lonely.

But the researchers also measured how much empathy participants had for other people’s social pain. For example, they asked about empathy for a peer who had been bullied at school, who hadn’t been invited to a party, or who had just been through a breakup.

Subsequently, the people who said they often or very often felt lonely scored higher on average for empathy for social pain. Researchers theorized that they might be more empathetic because they understood what it felt like to be left out. As a result, lonely teens may develop stronger empathy than those who never experience loneliness.

Factors That Decrease Loneliness in Teenagers

The Cigna survey found that particular behaviors and attitudes were correlated with less loneliness.

Frequent, meaningful in-person interactions resulted in much lower loneliness scores.

Newport Academy Mental health Resources: Newport Academy Well-being Resources: loneliness in teenagers

Spending time with family was associated with feeling able to find companionship when needed.

Sleeping just the right amount also led to lower loneliness scores. People who reported sleeping long enough, but not too long, were significantly more likely to have close friends and connections.

Getting just the right amount of exercise decreases loneliness. People who reported getting the right amount of physical activity were more likely to feel that they were part of a group of friends and had a lot in common with others.

In summary, loneliness in teenagers is a significant problem. Hence, teens need to find ways to connect with peers, family, and the world around them. In addition, building healthy habits, such as exercising and sleeping enough, has the power to ward off teen loneliness.

Photos by Newport Academy, Shane Rounce, Justin Main, and Josh Saldana from Unsplash.

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