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Alone in the Crowd: Understanding Loneliness in Teens

Emilia S. of Olathe, Kansas, was a popular chatterbox in middle school. She was a student leader who helped integrate younger students on campus, participated in tons of activities, and spent weekends hanging out with a half-dozen friends.

Freshman year, everything crashed to a halt. Her friendships faded as her class split up to attend different high schools. She didn’t make her high school drill team or the school play and couldn’t seem to find a spot in the right club. On weekends, she stayed in her room or watched movies with her parents.

“I think it was really tough on her,” says Emilia’s mom, Julie. “I felt for her, too. It was a rough year.” To make matters worse, on social media, Emilia’s former middle school friends looked like they were having a fabulous time together at their new school.

Emilia retreated into her shell, and Julie began to worry.

Finally, Emilia admitted that she ate lunch alone every day.

“She just kind of felt like she didn’t have anyone,” Julie recalls. No parent wants to picture their teen sitting alone in a crowded cafeteria, but research shows that feelings of isolation are common among adolescents. Seventy percent of 18-year-olds report recurring bouts of loneliness, according to a study published in the Journal of Sociological Inquiry.

And though it’s not unusual for a teen to spend a lonely afternoon with nothing to do, prolonged feelings of isolation can be damaging, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Research shows that lonely adolescents are more likely to be bullied and feel depressed. And they are at a higher risk for suicide than other teens. The impact can last into adulthood, making loneliness “an important public health concern,” according to the journal study.

Despite potential long-term consequences, feelings of loneliness are not only inevitable, but somewhat necessary for teens, says Jeff Rothweiler, a clinical psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“I’ve never met a teen who didn’t have an occasional period of loneliness,” says Rothweiler, who has treated teens for 28 years. “Some of the tasks they need to complete for their development require a little alone time.”

This partly explains why teens hole up in their rooms. Solitude gives adolescents the opportunity to develop autonomy, form opinions, and define their value system, he says. “Partly, it’s about pulling back from certain people in their lives, from parents and family of origin, in order to help them establish a better sense of identity,” Rothweiler explains.

This means parents shouldn’t panic if their teen seems lonely. After all, every teen has conflicts and separates from friends now and then, Rothweiler stresses. But keep an eye on it. If loneliness persists and your teenager seems troubled for two weeks or longer, it may be cause for concern, he cautions.

Factors that Influence Loneliness

1. Personality Types

Loneliness may look different with your teenager than it does with others, so it’s important for parents to stay attuned to their teen’s individual needs and distinct personality.

Even teens with a lot of friends can feel lonely, says Katie Reeves, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner for the Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto, California. “There’s a real loneliness that’s possible with kids who appear to be social,” Reeves says. “They may be interacting with their peers, but not effectively, or not in a way where they feel understood. Or maybe they’re trying to interact with peers that aren’t necessarily there to support them.” Reeves says she sees a lot of social kids who say they feel misunderstood, or that their parents, friends, or family members don’t really get what they’re saying. That feels isolating, too.

Your teen’s personality also helps determine their tolerance for loneliness, says Dr. Brian Primack, a researcher and professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“You might think introverts are going to be more lonely because they spend more time by themselves,” Primack says. But introverts generally are more comfortable with solitude. They spend time alone by choice, and don’t need to reach out as much as other personality types.

Extroverts, however, draw energy from crowds and other people. An extroverted teen with few friends may suffer more with loneliness than an introverted teen, explains Rothweiler.

Ultimately, though, “no one is immune to loneliness,” he says.

2. Social Media

Social media does have an impact on loneliness. The human need for real-world interaction has evolved over millions of years. It isn’t about to change with the click of a keyboard, says Primack, who has studied the link between social media and feelings of isolation in young adults.

“Eye contact, listening to laughter, touch. If those different things are now being achieved more through an emoji rather than an actual laugh, or through a virtual discussion, rather than an actual in-person discussion, it doesn’t mean it’s evil,” notes Primack. “It just brings up the question: Is that an appropriate and sufficient kind of substitute?”

So far, research shows that virtual contact isn’t adequate. Social media provides countless avenues for teens to connect. Yet it offers just as many ways to feel excluded—and doesn’t replace personal contact.

Researchers have found a link between Facebook use and symptoms of depression. Users feel bad when comparing themselves to others, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. In addition, a study published in the November 2017 edition of the journal Clinical Psychological Science found that a surge in adolescent mental health issues and suicides directly corresponded to increased use of smartphones and other media.

However, social media isn’t always the bad guy, Rothweiler says. It can be a resource that helps teens jumpstart connections that eventually ease loneliness. If face-to-face contact seems intimidating, social media can provide a comfortable way for teens to reach out, initiate plans, or even launch relationships with others.

3. Depression

Chances are that a teen who squabbles with their best friend or breaks up with a partner will feel temporarily lonely and sad. Depression is more long-term, lasting at least two weeks, and can be a serious mental health issue, says Primack. It is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as feelings of sadness and guilt, a loss of interest in activities, an inability to concentrate, changes in appetite or sleep, or thoughts of death or suicide.

“If you see your teen socially isolating themselves like they never did before, that’s a big red flag,” says Dr. Yolanda Evans, an adolescent medicine doctor at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of Teenology 101, the hospital’s blog for parents of teens. “When kids pull away from any and all social outlets or contacts, or really don’t want to engage in activities they enjoyed before, parents should start to worry.”

How to Cope with Loneliness

Sometimes being around new people can help. Emilia’s mom, Julie, eventually recruited a school counselor, who met with Emilia and then asked teachers to switch up seat assignments and create small work groups in class to help the teen make new friends.

Ultimately, little changed at school. But Emilia, now a 16-year-old sophomore, seems to accept being alone more, and she occasionally spends time with friends from a Taekwondo class outside of school.

“I don’t know if it’s solitude and she’s happy with that, or if it’s loneliness,” Julie says. “When I ask, I get the ‘that’s a stupid question’ look.”

For now, Julie says she’ll keep an eye on Emilia, try not to worry, and adjust her own expectations.

“Maybe you just have to accept that they are happy,” Julie says. “Even if it looks different than what we would want for them.”

As always, with teens, “there’s a tricky balance between micromanaging and not being supportive enough,” says Primack. He advises parents to let teens work out issues themselves as much as possible, so that they develop resilience.