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Loneliness in adolescence: how can we support young people?

Adolescence can be a vulnerable time for loneliness; navigating the academic and social pressures, as well as the transition between childhood and adulthood, makes this period particularly difficult for many. Not only do these environmental factors evoke stress, but the brain undergoes a critical period of development in regions involved in social processing, leading to a greater sensitivity to social rejection.

Nearly half of 10–12 year olds report feeling lonely at least some of the time, rising to nearly 60% of 16-24 year olds. Loneliness is an isolating and distressing experience in itself, but emerging research suggests it can also have much more long-lasting negative effects. Research published last week by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) has found that loneliness at ages 12 and 18 is associated with a higher risk of mental health problems, poorer sleep, reduced life satisfaction, lower academic achievement, and employment difficulties. But what can we do to prevent this?

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The new study uses data from the E-Risk longitudinal study to identify factors associated with adolescent loneliness.

Identifying the causes of loneliness

In order to prevent loneliness and reduce these negative outcomes, it is important to determine the causes. Using data from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, IoPPN researchers were able to determine the extent to which loneliness stems from genetic versus environmental factors.

While both contributed to adolescent loneliness, the findings indicate that environmental factors may have a greater influence. The study was able to identify some of these key environmental factors: adolescents who did not feel lonely were more likely to have closer sibling relationships, increased parental monitoring, and more happiness at home. In contrast, those who often felt lonely were more likely to have been bullied and experienced social isolation. This is of particular concern as, following the COVID-19 lockdown, social isolation has been widespread and many young people have felt lonely.

This is not the first-time bullying has been observed as a key risk factor for loneliness. In a previous study of the same cohort, the researchers found that exposure to bullying was the risk factor most strongly associated with loneliness, even when existing mental health difficulties were controlled for. In this study, being a victim of bullying in childhood also foreshadowed feelings of loneliness in adulthood, even if they no longer experienced victimisation.

What can we do to help?

The study highlights that those who experience loneliness in early adolescence remain at risk of the negative outcomes later in adolescence, even if they no longer feel lonely. In order to prevent the emergence and persistence of loneliness in adolescence, it is important that those who are at higher risk receive ongoing support throughout this vulnerable period.

Since the home environment appears to play an important role in determining the onset of loneliness in early adolescence, families can support young people by maintaining a positive home environment, being involved in the young person’s life, and forming warm relationships. However, most of adolescence is spent in school. School interventions may, therefore, be an effective way to provide large-scale support to help young people manage loneliness. Developing a greater understanding of adolescent loneliness will help schools to better identify young people at risk of becoming lonely and help them develop peer relationships. Given that bullying had the strongest effect on loneliness, schools must continue to reduce bullying and support victims.

Existing school interventions have had promising results on reducing childhood loneliness. ‘Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies’ (PATHS) consists of lessons on shyness, loneliness, forming and maintaining friendships, and awareness of emotions, as well as teaching children positive social behaviours. In a recent randomised control trial by the Manchester Institute of Education, the PATHS intervention was found to successfully reduce loneliness in primary school children.

More targeted interventions can also be used to address loneliness in young people. Lonely children can find it difficult to disengage from social threat. To combat this, cognitive programmes can be developed to reduce loneliness by teaching young people to redirect their attention away from threatening social information. Similarly, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that targets flawed social cognitions was shown to be the most effective intervention for reducing loneliness in children in a meta-analysis by the University of Chicago.

Although both school-based programmes and targeted interventions can help young people manage loneliness, more research is needed to understand which childhood factors are most important in predicting its onset. This will help clinicians identify key targets for intervention.

The new IoPPN research is a great step to learning more about adolescent loneliness. It is clear loneliness in adolescence could have long-lasting implications on health and wellbeing, and therefore developing prevention and early intervention strategies should be a priority.


You can find resources to help manage loneliness on YoungMinds, the NHS, or Mind.

In this story

Louise Arseneault

Louise Arseneault

Professor of Developmental Psychology

Timothy Matthews

Timothy Matthews

Postdoctoral Research Associate

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