Surveys are beginning to shed light on the impact that the lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19 is having on mental health and well-being. Early findings from these surveys suggest that loneliness is a particular problem for teenagers. One example is the results from the first 500 participants in the University of Oxford’s "Achieving Resilience During COVID-19" (ARC) study, in which more than one-third of 13 to 18-year olds reported high levels of loneliness.
Loneliness is not the same as aloneness, and it is not about choosing to be alone. Loneliness is the painful emotional experience that arises when there is a difference between your actual social contacts and what you desire them to be. This can relate to the quantity, quality or range of social contacts. But more importantly, it’s about how we appraise those social contacts. We know that chronic loneliness can have a negative impact on mental health. And in teenagers, who are already vulnerable to developing mental health problems, this is a particular cause for concern.
Our rapid review of studies which examined loneliness and mental health outcomes in young people and was published on Monday, found evidence of loneliness predicting depression and possibly anxiety in the future, even several years later. There was some evidence that the duration of loneliness is a stronger predictor of subsequent mental health problems than the intensity of loneliness. As lockdown, in some form, continues, we should do everything we can to mitigate against loneliness where possible.
Why are teens particularly susceptible to feeling lonely? Our teenage years are the developmental stage where we transition from being dependent children to autonomous adults. As part of this process, our relationships with our families tend to become more conflictual as we strive for independence. Peer relationships are crucially important for social development and for the development of self-identity at this stage. The sense of belonging and connection as a teen is much more about peers than about family. Relationships with peers are the fertile ground for trying out different ways of being and thinking. So, the developmental drive during our teenage years is about separating from the family and aligning with friends. Being locked down with family and not being able to spend time with friends thwarts this drive.
How do teenagers cope? Whilst it is normal for younger children to turn to family when fearful or upset, teens normally seek support from their friends. Peer groups tend to be smaller and peer relationships closer for teens than for children. Therefore, the impact of not seeing friends is likely to be greater for teens, and this will be compounded by other consequences of lockdown, such as the lack of support from educational professionals, feelings of frustration and loss arising from rushed endings, cancelled exams and foiled plans for the future, not to mention the ongoing uncertainty and invisible threat we all face.
What can we do? Foremost, it's useful to remind ourselves that it’s ok for this to feel hard – it’s a sign that this context is not ok, that it’s not normal for us to be apart in this way. It’s also important to remember that social distancing and social isolation in the current context really mean physically distancing ourselves from other people to limit the spread of COVID-19. Social contact is really important for mental health and for our sense of belonging, purpose and value. And there are still ways to connect, even with the physical distance between us. Online social interaction provides a good platform to do this, and today’s teens are generally more comfortable in the digital world and the online space than older generations as they have grown up with it in their lives.
Even though screen time has been highly critiqued, there is actually a lack of solid, clear-cut evidence for links between the use of digital technology and mental health. Most studies have focused on the quantity of screen time, rather than taking a more nuanced approach to various different types of screen-based activity. Watching TV, which is relatively passive, is very different from playing a violent game, and is very different again from having a virtual playdate via a videoconferencing platform. The vast majority of teens in the UK have access to the internet, and many have social media profiles. We can harness our capacity to interact socially online to enable social support and social connectedness, and tackle loneliness, whilst physically distancing ourselves from others.
So, parents should allow (some) more screen time but in a nuanced way. Not all screen time is equal. The caveat to this is to carefully monitor the online activities to ensure that teens stay safe online. There are also other ways to interact whilst physical distancing, such as writing letters, making an old-fashioned telephone call, and making eye contact with/smiling at others when out for exercise, for example, albeit from at least six feet away.
Alongside mitigating against loneliness, we can also promote mental health in teens by encouraging them to be physically active, to have a daily structure, including a consistent sleep routine and to keep occupied, doing more of the things that matter to them. We can also provide them with space to air their worries or frustrations. There are some great materials on the Young Minds website, for instance, and Shout, as an example, provides a confidential text messaging service for young people who are struggling.
- Dr Maria Loades is a clinical psychologist based at the University of Bath in the UK
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