A growing share of teens feels lonely at school

Data from kids in 37 nations links this to use of cell phones and the internet

teen boy wearing headphones and holding an iPhone stares into distance

The number of teens reporting loneliness, depression and other mental-health issues has been rising in the United States since the 2010s — long before the pandemic. Technology use may have contributed, a new study suggests.

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Lonely? You’re hardly alone. Since COVID-19 struck, people of all ages have struggled with this. Few teens have been able to spend as much time at school or with friends as they used to. But even before the pandemic, loneliness was becoming a growing problem for teens — especially girls. That’s the finding of a new study. And the trend appears throughout industrial nations across the globe.

Take the United States. There, the share of lonely teens jumped from 18 percent in 2012 to 37 percent in 2018. Overall, during those years, the share of girls reporting loneliness basically doubled in the countries studied. The increase in boys was somewhat smaller.

The new study linked rising loneliness to a greater use of smartphones and the internet over the same years.

Jean Twenge and her team shared their new findings in the July 20 Journal of Adolescence. A psychologist, Twenge works at San Diego State University in California. Since 2012, U.S. teens have been spending less time together face-to-face, her team has found. So this increase in loneliness started long before a pandemic made such meet-ups unsafe.

“Smartphones can help keep us connected with friends,” says Twenge. “But they can also make people feel excluded.” Girls, especially, may feel this way. One reason may be that they tend to post more photos and selfies than boys. Studies have shown that if those images don’t get a lot of ‘likes,’ it can affect a teen’s mental health.

And then there’s “phubbing,” a mash-up of “phone” and “snubbing.” It’s that moment in which a friend or family member takes out a phone and stares at it, ignoring everybody else, including you. Phubbing is one way tech can affect you, even when you’re not the one using it.

The new study pulled its data from a survey called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Some 1 million 15- and 16-year-old students from 37 countries took this survey in 2000, 2003, 2012, 2015 and 2018. Its questions mostly dealt with education. But they also included six statements about loneliness, such as, “I feel awkward and out of place in my school.” Students could strongly disagree, disagree, agree or strongly agree with each statement.

The good news: Even in 2018, most teens around the world still felt liked and included at school. But the fact that so many more were reporting loneliness is a worrisome trend.

Could technology really be behind that?

Loneliness and technology

The authors looked at several possible explanations. One was family size. Could a trend toward smaller families leave more kids feeling lonely? Another was the health of the economy. If many people lack jobs and money, teens might not be able to meet up as easily. But the study could tie neither smaller families nor more difficult economic times to increasing loneliness.

“The only factor that increased in lockstep with loneliness was technology,” Twenge now reports. That’s why she suspects the two trends are related. However, this link is only a correlation. Researchers can’t yet prove one caused the other.

“In general, I tend to think of technology as one piece of a broader puzzle contributing to loneliness,” says Amanda Lenhart. She’s a researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City. There, she studies how technology affects people’s lives.

The survey only asked questions about school. So the kids who reported loneliness through the PISA survey “don’t necessarily feel lonely in all of their lives,” she notes. Another limit of this study is the countries surveyed. None in Africa were included, nor were many in South and Central America or Southeast Asia.

In South Korea, school loneliness actually dropped between 2012 and 2018. It fell from 27 percent to 20 percent. “I don’t know why,” says Twenge. But, she adds, that doesn’t mean technology didn’t affect loneliness here. Something else could be going on that had an even larger and positive impact.

If technology fosters loneliness, should we stop using it? “No, not at all,” argues Twenge. “Everybody of all ages is trying to figure out how we can best use these technologies and stay mentally healthy.” Her favorite bit of advice is to “use your smartphone for what it’s good for. Then put it away.” That includes putting it away overnight ideally in another room.  

Kathryn Hulick is a freelance science writer and the author of Strange But True: 10 of the World's Greatest Mysteries Explained, a book about the science of ghosts, aliens and more. She loves hiking, gardening and robots.

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