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Children Are Lonelier Than Ever. Can Anything Be Done?

Loneliness was generally stable (with the bright spot being a significant drop in Asia) from 2000 to 2012 and then quickly reversed itself in all regions.

Children Are Lonelier Than Ever. Can Anything Be Done?

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes “all great and precious things are lonely.” Increasingly, our children fit that description. Loneliness among teens has reached troubling levels. For the decades encompassing the late 20th and early 21st centuries, teen mental health outcomes had been reliably stable or were even improving. No one was sure why, but the field of clinical psychology breathed a collective sigh of relief. To the deep dismay of psychologists and policymakers, that trend abruptly reversed in the early 2010s. Caution was urged, as many in the field believed the reversal was likely temporary and limited to a few Western countries. That optimism has been soundly squashed as study after study continues to document this downturn, and in some cases paint an even more dire situation than what was suggested by early reports. Recently released research by Jean Twenge, Jonathan Haidt, and colleagues in the Journal of Adolescence suggests that we may be entering a troubling era of sustained declines in happiness and wellbeing among teens. Even worse, these most recent findings come from dozens of countries around the globe, suggesting a spreading crisis of teen loneliness and poor mental health.

This most recent study is noteworthy for several reasons: First, the researchers examined loneliness in a preposterously large sample of over one million adolescents, making the results stable and credible. Second, they tracked loneliness over a very long time (18 years), demonstrating that this is no temporary blip. Third, they examined outcomes in 37 countries on five continents, showing a broad global trend. No matter how you slice the results, they paint a troubling picture: Loneliness was generally stable (with the bright spot being a significant drop in Asia) from 2000 to 2012 and then quickly reversed itself in all regions. By 2018, nearly twice as many adolescents reported high levels of loneliness than just half a decade earlier. When they drilled down to the country level, the results were no better, with 36 of 37 countries they studied showing double-digit increases in loneliness from 2012 to 2018, with only South Korea demonstrating a single digit (8.99 percent) increase.

But isn’t loneliness just a normal part of adolescence? Well, yes, but the more complex answer is that while short periods of loneliness certainly are common and not predictive of later problems, persistent loneliness in adolescence is concerning. It seems to alter developmental pathways that are not easily corrected and thus is related to many adverse outcomes later in life, from depression to peer victimization and even to physical health.

In the quest to figure out what is going on here, researchers have to do several things. First, they have to reliably document the worsening of mental health in adolescents. Check. Then they need to correlate those changes with changes in other things. Check. Finally, they need to propose theoretically plausible reasons why those other factors would be causally related to worsening mental health outcomes. It is analogous to understanding global warming. The first step is to document a global rise in temperatures. The next step is to show that something else is changing at the same time (e.g., atmospheric CO2 levels), and the third step is to explain how CO2 could cause temperatures to rise.

Since practically all hypothesized causes for the increase in loneliness are societal, researchers are in a bind in trying to figure this puzzle out because they can’t randomly assign people to different conditions, which is the gold standard for testing causal hypotheses. By randomly assigning people, researchers can leverage the power of chance to equalize the groups on all variables except for the one they are testing. We are largely without this tool in the case of loneliness research since you can hardly randomize countries, communities, or even schools to different amounts of time spent on TikTok or whatever other variable you are investigating. So researchers must use the next best thing, which is to examine “natural” differences in whatever variable they have a hunch about. This is why Twenge and colleagues’ recent paper is so important. By examining children from dozens of countries, they can explore societal variations and how those are associated with changes in loneliness. What they found was stunning in its consistency.

The researchers examined several prime suspects, including GDP, income inequality, and the number of children born per woman. No dice. But when they added access to smartphones and hours kids spent on the Internet (on weekdays) to their models, the statistical alarm bells came to life. And in case you are wondering, this was not an instance of a tiny effect showing “statistical significance” because of a huge sample size. The relationship between smartphone/Internet use and loneliness was BIG. In stats-speak, for every increase of one standard deviation of smartphone access, loneliness increased by about .3 standard deviations. The effect for Internet use was even bigger at .4 standard deviations. Even more interesting was that these results were not based on a single moment in time. Twenge and colleagues studied how changes in loneliness over time were related to changes in these other variables, so we see a dynamic dance between smartphone/Internet use and loneliness over the course of many years.

The Children of the Revolution
To that end, Mao Zedong activated China’s youth—unblemished and uncorrupted in heart and mind—to lead the struggle for purity.

Let’s dig one step further into the data to uncover how technology might be causing loneliness. It’s simplistic (and almost definitely wrong) to conclude from the data that the relationship is as simple as more technology equals more loneliness. As with most things, context matters. Here’s where the value of studying dozens of countries really shows itself. Twenge and colleagues found that the increase in school loneliness was larger in countries that started with lower levels of smartphone access. As they put it, “loneliness appears to shift the most when smartphone access crosses a critical level, suggesting the effect is due to group dynamics rather than high levels of access per se. Although we can only speculate, perhaps when smartphone use reaches approximately three out of four individuals, the social norm of digital vs. in-person interaction among adolescents becomes more entrenched.” In other words, once electronic communication becomes the default at the country level, teen mental health suffers.

When it is socially expected for kids to interact in person, even if they have the option to interact electronically, they seem to do just fine, but when the expected method becomes electronic (have you noticed any kids sitting around talking face-to-face in your own neighborhood lately?) then some kids seem to pay a heavy price. As Twenge and colleagues point out, it may not even matter if a particular teen is on social media because, as long as most kids are using technology to communicate, there may be mood-depressant effects on everyone. How could this be? One likely culprit seems to be FOMO or fear-of-missing-out, which may hit teens hard, particularly those who communicate the old-fashioned way. Thus, teens may be in an impossible situation, and parents, teachers, and policymakers may find themselves with only bad options for reversing this trend.

So is all lost? Well, no. There are a bunch of reasons to think we can turn this around. First, even with the recent bad news, it is important to remember that most children and adolescents are not persistently lonely. Second, these data were collected pre-COVID, and while it will take a long time to assess the effect of COVID on teens’ mental health, research by psychologist Peter Gray suggests that at least in the beginning portion of the pandemic, many kids reported stable or even improved mental health in comparison to before the pandemic. It is also possible that once cell phone and Internet use stabilize at very high levels, that loneliness will begin to recede as cultures adjust to the new normal.

Several initiatives are also underway to nudge things back to a healthier place. At Long Island University, my doctoral students and I are working on one such project that focuses on what is called Social Media Realism (SMR). SMR refers to a person’s judgment of the degree to which a narrative reflects the real world. The negative impact of social media content seems to partially depend on the viewer’s perceived amount of SMR. Social media presents a “curated” version of our lives, and many teens seem to have trouble accurately perceiving the gap between appearances and reality. To our knowledge, this study is the first attempt to decrease social media realism in teens. Participants are teenagers who identify as female between 13 and 15 years old and who regularly use social media. An adolescent’s frontal lobe is not fully developed, which can lead to misinterpreting others’ feelings and emotions, concrete thinking, and increased intensity of emotions, the perfect storm for developing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Teenage girls appear to be more at risk than teen boys due to biological differences, such as an earlier puberty onset, and social differences, such as the propensity to use relational power to hurt others. The intervention will consist of a series of engaging text-message prompts, like a GIF of their favorite TikTok star reminding participants that what is posted on Instagram is engineered to make them feel incomplete. Importantly, we will not be urging teens to use social media less. That would only feed into the power struggle between adults and teens. We will be providing information so they can make their own decisions. This approach can provide an effective and feasible solution to the trends we have been seeing while still allowing teens to use their favorite apps.

As clinicians, we both get questions from anxious parents about how to curb technology use in their teens, and we can offer several recommendations. First, we do not need to overreact to the danger of screens, and doing so may make the problem worse. The right balance seems to be to place some limits on cell phone/Internet use, particularly for young girls. The most effective way to do so is to wait as long as you can before allowing social media accounts and to create “screen-free” times during a child’s week. This can be done either by blocking use during specific days during the week or by blocking use during certain hours of each day. We do not recommend that parents attempt to physically hold phones or computers during these screen-free times, as escalation is likely, but that they leverage technology itself in the form of router or device “down times.”

Most new routers allow parents to block devices from accessing the Internet. The same can be done with iOS and Android devices. It’s a set it and forget it approach that we have found far more effective than repeatedly asking a teen to hand over a phone. Another one of our favorite parenting techniques is the so-called “when/then command,” which can be combined with the downtime approach to increase overall compliance by leveraging kids’ intense desire to be on screens. Instead of setting aside times when screens don’t function, we can link screen use to certain behaviors. An example would be a parent saying to their 13-year-old, “When you put all your clothes in the hamper and read for 30 minutes, then I will turn the router settings back on.” After initial grumbling, kids usually adjust well to this system.

Technological change is accelerating. Unfortunately, evolutionary adaptation is glacial. This creates an ever widening mismatch between our current reality and the world natural selection has prepared us for, which will continue to perplex policymakers and parents alike. Evolution has also made humans remarkably resilient and flexible, which gives those of us who study these phenomena a tremendous amount of optimism. Every day, we work with parents and teachers to successfully help teens incorporate screens into a varied and rich social life. We hope that we are simply still in the awkward teenage years of trying to figure out how to live with the “monsters” we’ve created. Or perhaps, when teens have Star Trek-like holodecks in their bedrooms, we’ll look fondly at this time.

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