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Dr. Maria Loades & Lucie Smith

Loneliness and teenagers amidst a global pandemic

6 minutes read

May 14,2021

Often, we think of loneliness as spending lots of time alone or lacking social interaction or connections. This can be true; a person you see sitting on their own may feel isolated and lonely. However, loneliness is more complex. People can also feel lonely when surrounded by a group of people, including their family and closest friends.

So, loneliness is not just about being alone. It's a feeling we experience when there is a gap between our ideal social contact and our actual social contact. This gap can be in the quantity or quality of our relationships or both. Even amongst a crowd, we can feel lonely if we do not have a sense of close connection with them. Loneliness may also have a broader negative impact on other aspects of mental health and wellbeing, such as our self-esteem.

This means that loneliness can be hard to spot as it is an internal experience. It can also include a myriad of difficult emotions, including anger, pain, and frustration, making it challenging for those closest to us to identify the signs of loneliness or consider it a potential underlying cause of distress.

Most importantly, loneliness is normal. Almost everyone will experience it at some point during their lives [1].

Why loneliness is particularly common in teens

The teenage years are a time of rapid growth and development as we transition from childhood to becoming independent adults. For younger, primary school-aged children, family relationships are the primary influence in their development. However, for teens, the peer group becomes increasingly important, and sharing experiences with people outside their family unit helps them develop their identities and provides a sense of belonging. It allows teens to experience ways of doing things that are different from their normal family life.

Teen loneliness and the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has required us to enforce social distancing measures globally to tackle the spread of the virus. 

For most teenagers, this has meant prolonged school closures, cessation of hobbies and extra-curricular activities, and has limited in-person interactions with their family unit. The closure of schools also means there has been less access to support, including mental health services.

At the outset of the pandemic, psychologists predicted that social distancing could make loneliness worse, which might negatively affect mental health for everyone, including teens. Our team conducted a rapid review of the existing literature and found 63 relevant studies that included a total of 51,576 school or university students. The evidence from these studies showed us that loneliness is associated with increased long-term risks of depression and anxiety symptoms up to 9 years later. Although many studies have not covered it extensively, the evidence suggests that the duration of loneliness could be more problematic to mental health outcomes than the intensity of loneliness [2].

Studies that have looked at loneliness in the pandemic context have found that teens have reported increased feelings of loneliness due to social distancing measures [3, 4]. This may be because of the developmental importance of peer relationships at this life stage, which have been severely limited by reduced in-person social interactions.

Increased loneliness may be one factor contributing to a rise in mental health difficulties in this context, although we do not yet know for sure [5]. There are many other pandemic related stresses that teens are facing. For each person, a combination of different stressors is likely to be relevant, of which loneliness may be one. For example, a teen may have worries about the health of themselves and family members, threats to family income, changes to their education, and the perceived changes to their future [6]. School closures have meant that teens have missed out on important milestones of their formative years, such as taking examinations or school graduations.

Although we might assume that teens are well skilled in technology and social media to stay in touch with friends virtually, it is not the same as in-person interactions [6].

So, what can we do?

Social distancing does not have to lead to disconnection. The way we talk about and approach loneliness can make a big difference to teens and help them become resilient in the face of loneliness. We need to validate their feelings, encourage them to be open about their experiences, and promote social interaction once allowed by local authorities. Here are some guidelines for parents/caregivers and adults working with teens.

  • Foster a climate of trust and connection

Talk openly about the challenging times everyone is going through. We can convert a difficult experience into something we have overcome. Celebrating what we have been able to get through and the resilience we have built can help support a positive mental framework about the situation.

Regularly check in with each other as to how we are feeling and help recognise and validate the feelings of others. This provides the space to connect and communicate, which can help to diminish feelings of loneliness.

  • Be open about loneliness

Talk openly about loneliness with teens by providing a safe space for them to open up about the difficult emotions they might be experiencing. Do not dismiss or neglect their feelings. Validating their experience also promotes social connection and helps them make sense of what they are going through.

Moreover, talk about what loneliness means, and the different ways loneliness can present itself. Normalising the experience and explaining that it is something that most people go through can make a big difference to help reduce feelings of isolation and disconnection.

  • Provide space and time to build or rebuild social connections

Some teens may find it difficult to re-integrate back into 'normal' life after being isolated and kept away from regular in-person social interactions for a long time. We need to provide opportunities for them to re-learn dynamics with friends and be part of social groups.

While academic catchup is important, we also need to allow space and time for teens to catch up socially and emotionally.

 The pandemic has been an unprecedented time for all of us, and no parent or caregiver would have been forewarned or trained on how best to handle a child's mental health during long periods of social distancing and isolation. And while there is no formula, it's essential first to acknowledge that we can do something about this. It starts with normalising conversation around mental health and loneliness. Just like any other feeling, loneliness is something we all experience at some point in our lives. Ironically, during the pandemic, too many of us collectively felt all alone. Perhaps, we can all come together to talk about it too?

  1. Qualter, P., Vanhalst, J., Harris, R., Van Roekel, E., Lodder, G., Bangee, M., ... & Verhagen, M. (2015). Loneliness across the life span. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 250-264.
  2. Loades, M. E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., ... & Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid systematic review: the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
  3. Branquinho, C., Kelly, C., Arevalo, L. C., Santos, A., & Gaspar de Matos, M. (2020). "Hey, we also have something to say": A qualitative study of Portuguese adolescents' and young people's experiences under COVID‐19. Journal of Community Psychology, 48(8), 2740-2752.
  4. Ellis, W. E., Dumas, T. M., & Forbes, L. M. (2020). Physically isolated but socially connected: Psychological adjustment and stress among adolescents during the initial COVID-19 crisis. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 52(3), 177.
  5. Cooper, K., Hards, E., Moltrecht, B., Reynolds, S., Shum, A., McElroy, E. & Loades, M. (accepted). Loneliness, social relationships, and mental health in adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Affective Disorders.
  6. Cooper, K., Hards, E., Moltrecht, B., Reynolds, S., Shum, A., McElroy, E. & Loades, M. (accepted). Loneliness, social relationships, and mental health in adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Affective Disorders.
Co-written By
Dr. Maria Loades

Dr. Maria Loades is a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer on the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology programme at the University of Bath. She is particularly interested in treatments for depression in adolescents, and in how access to treatment early can be improved.

Lucie Smith

Lucie Smith is a psychology graduate from Cardiff University with research experience studying depression in adolescents.

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