For most parents, teenage loneliness is difficult to decipher. So, they worry. Maybe your son is spending too much time in his room, and yet, he has friends and communicates with those friends. Or perhaps he doesn’t ever come out and refutes any attempts at communication. Trying to figure out a teenager’s loneliness can be tough, especially in this day of social media. How does a parent know when to intervene?
The literature on teenage loneliness is … well, confusing too. A 2019 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships study on adolescent loneliness from 1976 to 2017 believes that teens who spend time on social media with their friends are the “loneliest of all.”
According to the study’s author, Jean Twenge, teens are experiencing an increase in loneliness due to how they spend their leisure time, and part of the reason is social media. Today, 95% of teens spend most of their time on their cellphone, and 45% spend time on social media. So, the question is: Does social media contribute to loneliness?
Some studies have found that adolescents, especially those of the iGeneration, are spending less time with their friends in person doing things like going to the movies or parties or going shopping. Parents wonder whether the lack of person-to-person activities is an indication of loneliness, especially if these same teens are communicating with friends via social media.
According to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital psychologist Jeremy Bell, though recent studies report that those who spend more time on social media experience more loneliness, the crux of it is that teenagers are not used to being alone.
“Because, as children, they were rarely alone, teens are still learning and developing coping skills for dealing with loneliness,” Bell says.
Still, social media can contribute to loneliness, especially if a teen already has issues with depression or anxiety. “Teens can feel more isolated or lonely when they see posts of their friends, classmates or peers engaging in various social activities, vacations or celebrations,” Bell says.
That’s why teens and parents need to recognize what triggers their loneliness so they can learn to cope with it.
“It’s very important for parents to be able to talk with their teens about the situation that might be causing their loneliness,” says Collin Rhoade of ThrivePointe Counselling in Cincinnati. Sometimes, taking a break from social media, or putting limits on it, can be helpful.
Empathizing is essential, too. “Parents can also talk with their teen about a time and situation where they felt lonely,” Rhoade says. Remind your teen that everyone goes through patches of loneliness at different times in their lives.
Parents should watch for signs that loneliness is gravitating to severe anxiety or depression. Be mindful and watch for the following red flags:
- avoiding social situations or losing interest in activities
- talking about increased tiredness
- feeling worthless or lacking focus
- failing in school
- having consistent problems sleeping
- eating habits have changed
- using alcohol and drugs
- talking about wanting to die