Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., according to Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. In May, Murthy’s office released a sobering report which stated, “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.”
For parents and caregivers of tweens and teens, it’s especially important to understand the causes of the loneliness epidemic and how to address it. According to a 2018 global study, young people reported the highest levels of loneliness of any age group, and having supportive relationships is the most significant contributor to adolescent mental health and overall well-being. Why are loneliness rates going up? Here’s what we discovered and what it means for tweens, teens and families:
1. Social isolation is increasing.
Over the two decades between 2003 and 2020, time spent alone increased by about 24 hours per month for all age groups. For people between the ages of 15-24, time spent with friends decreased by nearly 70 percent, from 30 hours a month to just 10 hours. Today’s adolescents are spending a lot more time alone than their parents did, and feeling more lonely as a result.
2. Social networks are shrinking.
Compared to a generation or two ago, families are smaller, busier, move from place to place more often, and live further apart. That means less time spent with extended family, friends, neighbors, and people we interact with around the communities we live in. Studies also show that participation in civic, service, recreational, and religious organizations is in decline. That means less interaction with people who share common interests, values, and goals.
3. We have fewer close friends. Among people who don’t report feelings of loneliness, 90% have three or more confidants. Research shows that close friendships protect tweens and teens’ mental and physical health and increase resilience well into adulthood. But in 2021, 49% of Americans said they have three or fewer close friends, a number that’s nearly doubled since 1990.
4. Trust levels are lower. In 1975, 45% of Americans felt they could reliably trust each other. In 2016, that percentage had shrunk to 30%. Lower levels of trust correspond to near-historic rates of polarization. Polarization and mistrust may affect tweens and teens even more than adults, because the adolescent brain is not yet adept at processing trauma and anxiety.
What can we do about loneliness?
It can be helpful to remember that we’re all in this together: The issues leading to loneliness affect everyone in our society to some degree. Understanding that you’re not the only one dealing with loneliness can make it easier to reach out. And families can take steps to alleviate loneliness, like practicing emotional self-care, cultivating social connections, and building meaningful relationships. Here are three key places to start:
1. Learn emotional regulation skills.
Practice “naming and claiming” feelings. Learn strategies to manage difficult emotions like loneliness. Know when to reach out for help. Lucero’s wellness app offers a gamified approach to self-care that supports emotional regulation and nurtures real-world relationships, with content that’s co-created by licensed therapists and youth.
2. Cultivate community together.
Tweens and teens benefit from a diverse network of relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and community members. And guess what? So do you! Every supportive relationship makes your family’s sense of belonging more resilient. How can you and your teen grow supportive relationships as a family? Brainstorm easy, fun ways to connect with others, like starting a block party, volunteering, or joining an intramural sports team together.
3. Take it offline.
While it’s normal to seek connection online, social media is no substitute for IRL relationships. In fact, some studies show that increased social media use correlates with higher rates of loneliness. In-person connections are best for learning critical social skills and establishing a steady source of support, so encourage your teen to put down their device and reach out for real-world connection, too.