2023 marked the release of a public health advisory unlike any other in history. Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community calls out the profound impact of loneliness on mental and physical health, with a special focus on adolescents. Dr. Vivek Murthy says, “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death… And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations.”

Because tweens and teens are especially vulnerable to the effects of loneliness and isolation, parents and caregivers need to know what’s causing the epidemic, how to recognize signs and symptoms, and what to do to help adolescents thrive through meaningful connection to others.

Why does loneliness matter for tweens and teens?

The Surgeon General’s advisory presents evidence that a lack of social connection is literally life-threatening. Loneliness and isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively. They increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and are associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. Tweens and teens suffering from loneliness are of special concern because belonging and connection are foundational to their identity, self-esteem, and lifelong achievement. Furthermore, having supportive relationships is frequently cited as the most significant contributor to adolescent mental health and overall well-being.

What’s causing loneliness to increase?

The causes of the loneliness epidemic are complex. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many contributing factors, but research shows that these patterns have been in place for years and even decades. The Surgeon General’s report notes that among 15-24 year olds, “time spent in-person with friends has reduced by nearly 70% over almost two decades, from roughly 150 minutes per day in 2003 to 40 minutes per day in 2020.” Other trends include historically low levels of trust and community involvement, increasing levels of social isolation, and increased use of digital devices and social media over in-person connection. 

What are the signs and symptoms of loneliness?

Loneliness isn’t always easy to identify. Like adults, adolescents often attribute their negative feelings to other problems, and sometimes suffer from loneliness even when they have a busy schedule and social life. Symptoms can include:

How to help:

The statistics are scary, but these steps can help tweens and teens stay connected to others and break patterns that lead to loneliness:

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