Solving Teen Loneliness

Every month, we keep you informed on the latest research on teen development in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at a USA Today article that discusses the upward trend in teen loneliness and how parents can mitigate it.

Teenagers are the loneliest generation, according to a recent survey sponsored by insurance and health services company Cigna. The evaluation of loneliness was measured by a score of 43 or higher on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-item questionnaire developed to assess subjective feelings of loneliness, as well as social isolation. Teens and young adults in Generation Z (those born between 1997 – 2012) had a loneliness score of 48, outpacing all other groups. The next most lonely group was senior citizens, who had a score of 39.

It’s no secret that adolescence can feel like a particularly isolating stage of life. However, San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge suggests in this USA Today article that there is an upward trend in loneliness for Gen Z specifically: “We find it is a generational difference, since loneliness has increased among teens.” Senior citizens are typically the group that reports feeling most lonely.

While many factors can contribute to loneliness, it’s important for parents of Gen Z teens to understand the unique environment that causes today’s teens to experience loneliness at such a high rate.

  1. Teens spend less time socializing face-to-face compared to earlier generations. Twenge notes that Gen Z teens are less likely to “get together in person, go to parties, go out with friends, date, ride in cars for fun, go to shopping malls, or go to the movies,” in their free time than past generations. About 40 years ago, 52 percent of high school seniors said they got together with their friends daily. By 2017, only 28 percent did.
  2. Instead, teens spend much of their free time on social media. While social platforms are meant to create connections, they also can become a distraction from or substitution for face-to-face interaction. For teens who already face the insecurities that accompany adolescence, social media can give teens a feeling of being left out, lonely, and less-than.
  3. Today’s teens also experience increased pressures. High school students “are taking college classes and there is a significant uptick in the amount of homework our kids have compared to just 15 years ago,” says Melissa Sporn, a child psychologist. The increased academic and extracurricular pressure may also cause teens to feel overwhelmed and anxious and withdraw from social settings.

Loneliness is more than a passing mood. Although their impact may not be immediately apparent, feelings of isolation have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Cigna’s CEO David Cordani compares long-term loneliness to obesity and cigarette smoking, which are regarded among the most serious threats to overall health. Loneliness can impact behavior as well – teens who experience loneliness are at a greater risk for destructive activities such as alcohol, illicit drug or over-the-counter medicine abuse.

With these pressures compounding the already tumultuous middle and high school years, how can you mitigate the consequences of loneliness?

  1. Spend time. While peers play a significant role in reducing loneliness, having face-to-face time as a family is just as important. Even if it is just making dinner, watching a movie or going for a walk together, making family time in your week can mitigate feelings of loneliness.
  2. Limit screen time. Consider implementing a no-cell-phone rule that works for your family, such as having your teen turn in their cell phone before bed or implementing a one-hour turn-off after dinner. This time can be used for anything else – homework, conversations, exercise or time with friends. It’s also important to have the conversation about why time away from social media is important. This can help teens understand that limiting screen time comes from a place of care, not control. Twenge notes that Gen Z is “the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone.” Their social media habit is more cultural than personal, so be patient if your teen has a hard time breaking it.
  3. Encourage physical activity. Cigna’s study showed that people who exercise are considerably less likely to be lonely and have improved mental and physical health. For middle and high school students, exercise typically comes with a team environment, which can also help in reducing loneliness.
  4. Check in. Create an open, honest dialogue about your teen’s social life and mental health so they are comfortable sharing any feelings of loneliness and isolation they may be experiencing.
  5. Call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline (800-950-NAMI) or text “NAMI” to 741741 if your teen needs immediate help.

You can read the full USA Today article here.

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