The teens aren't alright: Info for parents and educators, Part 1
The key developmental task of adolescence is socialization, but teens these days are more socially isolated than ever. Online learning, cancelled events, and prohibitions on sports and face-to-face extracurricular activities have left already overwhelmed teenagers reeling and their parents at a loss for how to best support them.
Even prior to the shutdowns in schools and the economy, experts were concerned about what they describe as a “loneliness epidemic.” Adolescence is, by nature, a time of naturally heightened loneliness (Favotto, Michaelson, Pickett & Davison, 2019), meaning that perceptions of rejection or exclusion can easily cause teens to feel lonely due to their developmental stage. However, there are also external cohort factors at play due to shifts in society and changes in technology use. In a study of 8.2 million adolescents aged 13-18 from 1976-2017, there was a steady decline in the amount of face-to-face social interaction adolescents experience on a daily basis, despite a reduction in time spent in paid working environments (Twenge, Spitzberg & Campbell, 2019). The new expectations placed on kids to maintain social distance and learn in solitary environments have exploded the mental health crisis for this age group.
If you are a parent, loved one, or teacher and find yourself concerned about the mental health of the teens in your life, here are some signs that loneliness might be affecting their wellbeing:
Kids are trading in days spent together at sporting events, dances, driving around, or hanging out in each other’s homes for time engaged in online entertainment and social media use. We know a primary contributor to the decrease in in-person connection is an increase in technology use (Twenge, Spitzberg & Campbell, 2019). Even when they are together, teens are often distracted by the constant intrusion of technology and miss out on meaningful relationship development.
Here are the basic problems with excessive technology engagement:
Problematic internet use is highest in for teens who struggle with social anxiety, lack in social skills, or feel lonely (Kim, LaRose & Peng, 2009). Almost all teens right now fall into one or more of these categories. Tech use provides what they see as an escape, but escaping anxiety increases the frequency and intensity of the emotion. Being glued to a screen also leads to social isolation.
Socially anxious and lonely teens are more likely to choose written, computer mediated communication (text/email) compared to talking on the phone or in person (Reid & Reid, 2007). Both the impersonal nature and lack of connection from non-verbal cues, like eye contact and smiling, contributes to subjective loneliness (Favotto, Michaelson, Pickett & Davison, 2019).
Social media use displaces time that could be spent on more social or healthy activities (Primack, Shensa, Sidani et al, 2017). One study found that communicating online was particularly problematic for teens who live in supportive environments, because they are trading in time with loved ones who can affect their perceived level of connection in a positive way for an activity that detracts from it.
Teens are communicating with other struggling teens. While kids having an outlet for their feelings isn’t inherently a bad thing, it can put a lot of pressure on other children. Additionally, when adolescents encounter messages about depression and self-harm from friends, those behaviors can become normalized and increase the likelihood that kids will act in self-damaging ways (George, 2019).
The teens years are notorious eras for social comparison. Kids are looking to carefully crafted social media profiles to see what others have and comparing that against their own lives. We know this social comparison contributes to subjective feelings of loneliness (Favotto, Michaelson, Pickett & Davison, 2019). Looking to “influencers” and “Youtubers” for a sense of reality leaves kids feeling inferior and vulnerable.
Low Motivation/Social Withdrawal
Many parents and teachers are noticing extremely low levels of motivation and less engagement overall from teens this year. Many of the things they love and have relied on have been cancelled and the dynamics in schools and sports has changed for the worse. You might be surprised, though, when your kids decline invitations to join in activities or spend time with friends.
The connection between motivation and loneliness looks like this:
Chronic loneliness in teenagers is related to a decrease in accepting invitations for social inclusion (Vanhalst, Luyckx, Van Petegem & Soenens, 2018). This finding replicates studies in adults that find long-term loneliness is correlated with social withdrawal (Cacioppo et al, 2010) and heightened need for interpersonal space in relationships (Layden, Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2015).
Individuals experience a decline in motivation for physical activity when they’re lonely and there is a greater likelihood they will discontinue physical activities over time when loneliness persists (Hawkley, Thisted & Cacioppo, 2009).
Several factors likely contribute to these counterproductive behaviors:
Loneliness causes an individual’s stress response to be triggered (sympathetic nervous system & HPA-axis) due to what it perceives as a threat (humans are communal creatures and not having interactions poses a risk). In response, people become more hypervigilant, looking for social threats, and focused on short-term self-preservation, which increases avoidance and social withdrawal (Layden, Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2015).
Chronic loneliness decreases intrinsic motivation in teenagers and they may struggle to see the purpose of social interaction (Vanhalst et al, 2018). Additionally, when they do participate in activities, they are less likely to find the process rewarding. This is due to decreased activation in the ventral striatum, which is integral in experiencing the positive sensations associated with our reward pathways (Cacioppo, Cacioppo, Capitano & Cole, 2015).
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teens get 8-10 hours of sleep per night. In many households these days, sleep patterns are dysregulated and kids are getting less than or more than the recommended time. We know for both adolescents and pre-adolescents, chronic loneliness is highly correlated with sleep disturbance, which can increase depressive symptoms and have a negative effect on general health (Harris, Qualter & Robinson, 2013).
Some of the contributing factors to sleep issues:
Loneliness is related to poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness. The risks of sleep dysfunction increase for kids who have experienced trauma or violence (Matthews et al, 2017).
Loneliness increases adolescents’ tendency to ruminate, which means they take a stressor and replay it in their minds. The process of rumination is a primary trigger for anxiety, depressed mood, and poor sleep (Zawadzki, Graham & Genn, 2013).
· Sleep deficits have numerous effects on emotional regulation and attention.
The reason experts refer to loneliness as an epidemic is, in part, due to the contagious nature of loneliness. You can see from the risk factors and common responses above that humans often behave in counterproductive ways. We actually act in ways that contribute to our negative emotional states (anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc). When people are lonely, they act more coldly toward others and perceive their environments as more dangerous and colder, causing them to withdraw (King, 2021). This pattern of social withdrawal in conjunction with an increase in technology use, decrease in face-to-face communication, increased rumination, lower levels of intrinsic motivation, less uplifting and positive neurochemical reward in response to social interaction, and sleep dysregulation has created the perfect storm.
The CDC reports that suicide has been on the rise for decades for all age groups with a 33% increase between 1999-2019. These numbers are far more troubling when you examine the uptick in suicide for pre-teens and teenagers. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals age 10-34 in the United States according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That already startling statistic is even worse in select states. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Ohio Chapter released a special statement in October of 2020 noting that suicide is presently the leading cause of death of kids aged 10-14 in Ohio.
Take a moment.
Let that sink in.
This is the percentage increase in suicide rates by state over a 9 year period for people age 10-24
Return for Part 2 to explore interventions and tips to support the teens in your life.
If you or a loved one are in crisis, reach out for help 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741.