By Arastou Aminzadeh, M.D., Founder, BNI Treatment Centers
One of the most distressing effects of the pandemic has been its affect on teen mental health. Young people spent a significant amount of time cooped up at home, forced to give up most of their social activities due to lockdowns. This resulted in increased teen loneliness.
At a time in their development that social interactions play a key role in helping adolescents acquire healthy social skills, teens were left few options this last year. Most would default to the Internet to find peers to chat with on social media platforms and forums, or to kill time with online activities. In fact, the majority of a teenager’s social life has occurred online for a year now.
Teen loneliness was already a common problem prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research from Italy and Iran had previously studied the connection between loneliness among young people and subsequent internet addiction. Both studies demonstrated a positive correlation between these two factors.
Now, a new study out of Finland further cements this relationship between teen loneliness and compulsive internet use. The new variable in this recent study is the pandemic and how it has exacerbated teen loneliness, and therefore, internet addiction. The fallout from the excessive time online is an increased sense of loneliness because it replaced real life social interactions.
About Teen Loneliness During COVID-19
Ask any teen if they sometimes experience loneliness and they are likely to nod their head in the affirmative. All young people sometimes feel left out or lonely. However, teens who suffered from more pronounced feelings of loneliness may have been struggling with depression or another mood disorder, social anxiety, or a personality disorder. Some loneliness is normal, but intense chronic loneliness is typically associated with a mental health challenge.
During the pandemic, however, loneliness became its own epidemic that affected everyone of all ages. Teens, though, were hardest hit by the effects of the social distancing policies because of the significant role socializing plays in their daily life. Where adults had plenty of other distractions, teens were left with a gaping void in their life.
Study Shows Increase in Internet Addiction Among Lonely Teens
According to the Finnish study that was published in February 2021 in the Child Development journal, compulsive internet use has increased at a statistically significant rate. Dysfunctional internet behavior would include online gaming addiction, copious amounts of time on social media sites, and consumption of online pornography.
Further, the study found a direct connection between compulsive online behaviors and depression. This went both ways. A teen that was depressed may have spent more time online, as a distraction or salve, while teens that spent copious amounts of time online were more prone to develop depression. In either scenario, depression was the link.
In addition to the mood disorder, adolescents that engaged in excessive online activity had poorer academic performance. This is attributed to the amount of time that is consumed by online activities, which cuts into the time available to study.
The study determined that it wasn’t only due to a lack of social time with their friends this last year that has resulted in compulsive online behavior. The authors found that teens whose parents were not around, or who were inattentive, were also likely to turn to the Internet to fill their sense of loneliness.
COVID-19 and Teen Mental Health
There is no denying the serious impact the pandemic and lockdowns have had on our young people. Major milestones have been skipped over, social events radically altered or cancelled, schools closed, and, of course, the loss of live, in-person social interaction.
Teens need structure, predictable daily routines, and a sense of safety. During the past year these basic needs are not being met. Many kids have lost loved ones to the virus, or seen their parents become unemployed. All of this is very difficult for a teen to process and manage, as their limbic system is not fully developed at this age. Brain functions like impulse control, emotion regulation, and decision-making will be under construction until age 25.
As a mental health practitioner, I can confirm that our teens are struggling at higher rates than usual. Anxiety and depression are definitely on the rise in this cohort. When the dust settles we will have to face the statistics head on and provide additional services for struggling adolescents.
Other Causes of Teen Loneliness
At first glance, it may seem that teen loneliness is simply caused by a lack of friends. Maybe the teen struggles socially and has trouble establishing or maintaining sound friendships. But in reality, there are many other factors that can contribute to feelings of loneliness. Consider these 5 things that can cause loneliness:
- Moving. Possibly the family has recently relocated. Even if the new home is not that far from their former home, the unfamiliar surroundings can triggers feelings of loneliness. This even more so if the move is quite a distance away from their old friends and school.
- Social anxiety disorder. Some teens have a heightened or irrational fear of being judged by their peers. Because of the fear of being publicly criticized or mocked, the teen chooses to isolate, leading to loneliness.
- Feeling excluded. Teens are very sensitive. Most teens have the “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, which means they crave the feeling of belonging and being included in social gatherings. When they are passed over repeatedly it can lead to feelings of loneliness and even depression.
- Social media. While the word “social” in social media may sound like it is all about connecting with others, in fact social media can enhance feelings of loneliness in teens. This is due to the unnatural, shallow, and sometimes toxic “relationships” made on social media platforms.
- Being bullied. Cyber-bullying is extremely damaging to a teen’s self-esteem. When they happen to be the target of a bully who uses social media to embarrass or shame them, they will feel marginalized and isolated.
At this time in history it is essential for parents to be fully present for their children, and tuned into their mood states. If the teen is exhibiting signs of depression due to loneliness, and seem to self-medicate by engaging in compulsive internet use, it would be a good time to have the teen evaluated. Parents truly hold the key.
About the Author
Dr. Arastou Aminzadeh is a triple board certified physician in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is the co-founder of BNI Treatment Centers in Agoura Hills, California. Dr. Aminzadeh is a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and also a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. A well respected leader in the field, he also holds an adjunct faculty position at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine, where he completed his residency and fellowship.