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5 Takeaways from the Latest Research on Social Isolation Among Teens

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It’s now been nine months since COVID-related social distancing guidelines went into effect in the United States. In some countries, restrictions have been in place even longer. As the crisis continues, research on social isolation over extended periods of time is revealing potential long-term mental health consequences for adolescents.

Loneliness as a result of quarantine and remote schooling has been the number-one mental health concern among teens during the pandemic. And due to the developing state of their brains and hence their limited ability to manage emotions and challenges, teens are particularly vulnerable to the neurobiological and psychological impact of social isolation.

Researchers and mental health experts have pinpointed a number of areas in which this combination of factors is likely to have troubling outcomes. Here are five takeaways from recent research on social isolation and its repercussions for teen mental health.

As a result of social isolation, teens are at high risk of PTSD, anxiety, and substance abuse.

To understand the possible impact of the pandemic on teens, research on social isolation consolidates data from studies on natural disasters and the resulting trauma and anxiety in adolescence. A review published in November 2020 analyzed the findings of 16 studies on this topic conducted over the past 20 years. The results showed that teenagers experiencing social isolation are at a high risk for developing PTSD and anxiety-related symptoms. “When school-based and in-person mental health services are interrupted or discontinued, other remote, technology-based interventions are urgently needed,” the authors wrote.

In addition, experts warn that the pandemic could lead to a nationwide spike in substance use disorders. Teens whose social lives are “on pause” could be more susceptible to using drugs and alcohol as ways to numb the pain and anxiety associated with this time of instability.

Moreover, while telehealth has become more common, access to mental health treatment is still extremely limited as a result of the pandemic, even as the demand continues to increase. A World Health Organization survey released in October found that critical mental health services have been disrupted or halted in 93 percent of countries worldwide. And three-quarters of those impacted by the loss of care are children and adolescents.

Loneliness in the high school years increases the risk of depression up to nine years later.

Research published in November 2020 shows that isolation and depression are closely linked, not only during the period of social isolation but for years afterward. The review of 63 studies, involving 52,000 participants, examined whether social isolation and loneliness could predict future mental health problems in children and adolescents farther down the road.

Looking at the results of these studies, including one investigation done after a pandemic, researchers determined that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of depression for as long as nine years afterward. The authors stated, “Duration rather than intensity of loneliness was more strongly associated with mental health symptoms.”

Remote school isn’t engaging teens in the learning process. 

Not only is remote learning making teens lonelier, it’s also stalling their academic progress and depleting their sense of connection to the school community. A nationally representative survey of 3,300 young people aged 13 to 19 found that more than three-quarters of them spent less than four hours a day in class or doing homework. About a quarter said they didn’t feel connected at all to their teachers or to their classmates. In addition, teens reported that their overall health and well-being have suffered since starting online high school classes.

The report highlighted the potential long-term impact of social isolation. The authors stated, “Taken together, these findings suggest that students are experiencing a collective trauma, and that they and their families would benefit from immediate and ongoing support for basic needs, physical and mental health, and learning opportunities. Without that support, this moment in time is likely to have lasting negative effects for this cohort of high school students.”

Teens are using social media and gaming to meet their need for connection, resulting in tech overload.

Teens have been relying on gaming and social media, particularly TikTok, to fill the void left by social distancing and to deal with the boredom of isolation, according to a report on social media and isolation from the Child Mind Institute and California Partners Project. The authors of the report point out that constant tech use interferes with two of the basic pillars of teen health and well-being: sleep and exercise. While phones can keep teens connected, social media does have a negative impact on teens.

In fact, 65 percent of teens interviewed reported little or no physical activity, and the majority were still on their phones at least an hour after bedtime. Moreover, the report notes that even with virtual dating and online interaction, teens are missing a key phase of identity development that occurs through spending face-to-face time with peers.

Finally, the report claims that the “extent of tech use and its impacts aren’t obvious, even to teens.” Teens understand that social media is designed to keep them scrolling, but that doesn’t stop them from doing so.

“The pandemic has turned up the heat on a simmering problem: devices fill the space that used to be occupied with laughter and the general excitement of youth. As these adolescents fall asleep with their phones under their pillows, tragically their sadness, anxiety, and despair are mounting—as is their dependence on the devices themselves.”

—from Are the Kids Alright? How Teens Are Struggling with Loss and the Limits of Living Online

The report offered four pointers for parents to help teens dealing with social isolation and too much screen time:

  1. Validate teens experience and acknowledge what has been taken away from them
  2. Try not to blame teens for using devices and distraction as coping mechanisms
  3. Familiarize yourself with the signs of depression and anxiety
  4. Be aware of the behavior you are modeling with your own use of technology.

Research on social isolation indicates that it may actually alter the adolescent brain.

According to a study published in the Lancet, research on social isolation in animals shows that this type of deprivation can have specific effects on the brain and on behavior in adolescence. “Although the isolation in these studies is more extreme than the reduced social interaction associated with physical distancing, this literature suggests that adolescents might be particularly affected by deprivation of their social needs,” the authors stated. Alterations in brain structure and function during adolescence can have a significant impact on whether an individual will suffer from a mental health condition, physical health issue, or substance abuse disorder at some point in their life.

In conclusion, research on social isolation points to a high likelihood of multiple negative ramifications for teens. Consequently, this is a generation at risk. Parents, teachers, mental health professionals, public health organizations, and policymakers must work together to support teens both individually and collectively during and after the pandemic. If your teen is struggling with social isolation and may be in need of professional help, please reach out to Newport Academy and we can help you find the support your family needs.


Are the Kids Alright? How Teens Are Struggling with Loss and the Limits of Living Online

 The State of Young People During COVID-19: Findings from a nationally representative survey of high school youth

J Pediatr Psychol. 2020 Nov-Dec; 45(10): 1124–1143.

J Behav Health Serv Res. 2020 Nov 23 : 1–3.

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2020 Nov; 59(11): 1218–1239.e3.

Lancet. 2020 Aug;4(8):634–640.