Teens are lonelier than any other age group, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescence, and rates of teenage loneliness have doubled in the past decade. Besides causing emotional pain, loneliness impacts teens’ mental and physical health. It is a risk factor for depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and correlates with lowered immunity, increased stress and inflammation, and many chronic conditions and diseases.
To protect your teen from the harmful effects of loneliness, try these four evidence-based tips:
1. Understand their neurology.
Teens are more susceptible to feeling lonely because their prefrontal cortexes – the part of the brain that helps regulate emotion and impulse control – are still developing, and their limbic brains – the part that responds to stress – are more active. The teenage brain is wired to seek social and emotional rewards and to feel everything more intensely. That’s why a seemingly small slight from peers can feel literally life-or-death to teens. Remind teens that their brains are works-in-progress and that everyone, no matter their age or level of popularity, struggles with uncomfortable emotions like loneliness at times. To help them develop emotional resilience, teach teens healthy habits for self-regulation like mindful breathing and positive self-talk.
2. Limit their alone-time.
Too much solitude can be scary for teens and leave them vulnerable. Before adolescence, children are rarely alone. Increased independence is something many teens crave but aren’t completely comfortable with. They likely haven’t developed coping strategies for loneliness, and they tend to seek connection and distraction from difficult emotions through social media and digital devices. Study after study shows that teens need real-world connection with friends and family. If you’re concerned about your teen’s level of loneliness, start tracking how much time they’re spending on their own and find ways to increase opportunities for meaningful interaction with others, like family dinners and game nights, in-person hangouts with friends, or volunteering for a cause they care about.
3. Ensure they get enough sleep.
A 2018 study published in the journal Nature Communications found that sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. That’s probably because lack of sleep leads to mood changes, decreased energy and a lack of interest in social engagement. And \”almost all teenagers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep,\” says sleep expert and Cornell University psychologist James B. Maas. Teens need more sleep than adults to support brain development: about 8-10 hours per night. Teens’ unique circadian rhythms make it natural for them to stay up and sleep later than most school schedules allow. To make sure your teen gets enough sleep, stick to a regular schedule for going to bed and waking up, and get the whole family on board to shut down all devices together before bedtime.
4. Tackle FOMO.
Social media’s endless parade of filtered photos and fantasies makes it easy to feel like everyone else is out there living their best life while you sit home alone. Everybody experiences Fear Of Missing Out sometimes, but because teens are more socially- and emotionally-driven than other age groups, they’re especially vulnerable. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that college students who limited social media use to 10 minutes per platform, per day experienced significant reductions in depression, loneliness, anxiety and FOMO. If your teen is struggling with loneliness, have an honest conversation about how their social media habits make them feel. You might experiment with cutting back on social media use together, or curate a feed that boosts confidence, connection and self-love instead of leading to loneliness.