Only the Lonely: Addressing Teen Loneliness

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 Dr. Ann Laggespediatric psychologist at Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis, the question is whether a teen is being alone versus being lonely.  


“A parent could say, ‘My kid is in their room a lot,’ but it depends on what the kid is doing and how long they have been there, Lagges says.  


Sure, if a teen spends all their time in their room and never leaves it, or responds that they have “nobody” when they need someone, that behavior is concerningLagges says. Social isolation, or feeling a lack of social supportis a huge problem for teens. 


But a difference does exist. Today, teens come home from school and play video games with friends, and talk or text on the phone. This is how they communicate socially outside of school, Lagges says.  


A lot of parents will tell their teen to get off the phone or tablet, and their teen’s response is, ‘I’m talking to my friends,’” Lagges says. She asks parentsIsn’t this the equivalent of an older generation’s landline and a teenager who won’t get off the phone?  


Often, we make social media a scapegoat, Lagges saysTrue, social media can contribute to loneliness if a teen already has issues with depression or anxiety. If young people are viewing idealized pictures on social media, they might feel like their reality doesn’t measure up, thus increasing the potential for social isolation. 


So, what can parents do? “The first thing that I say to parents is: Have you talked to your teenager?” Lagges says. “Ask them what’s going on. That’s always the first place to start.” 


Parents should watch for signs that loneliness is gravitating to severe anxiety or depression. Be mindful and watch for the following signs:

  • 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

All of these are red flags, but if a teen starts to talk about wanting to die, this is “very, very concerning, and parents should never dismiss these comments,” Lagges says.

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