Teens worldwide are reporting a sharper rise in feelings of loneliness than a decade ago, an outcome that may be linked to smartphone use, a study has found.
The Journal of Adolescence reported the study used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and found feelings of loneliness among teens, aged 15-16 years, in 36 of 37 countries, had skyrocketed between 2012 and 2018 – pre-pandemic.
Data analysis found nearly twice as many adolescents experienced “school loneliness” in 2018 than in 2012, with the increase found to be larger among girls than boys.
Additionally, school loneliness was found to be high with higher levels of smartphone access and internet usage.
In contrast, higher unemployment rates were tied to lower school loneliness.
“Social interaction involves a group, not just an individual, and the average adolescent in 2018 had fewer opportunities to socialize in person and more opportunities to socialize online than the average adolescent in 2000 due to the shift in social norms,” author Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, and colleagues observed.
The researchers further noted:
Although the school loneliness measure does not directly assess depressive symptoms, it is positively correlated with a measure of negative affect including emotions linked to depression (such as feeling miserable and sad) and negatively correlated with positive affect and general life satisfaction. Thus, school loneliness appears to have broader applicability to adolescent well-being as a whole. If so, the increase in depression among adolescents that has been documented in English-speaking countries may be occurring worldwide.
“The psychological well-being of adolescents around the world began to decline after 2012, in conjunction with the rise of smartphone access and increased internet use, though causation cannot be proven and more years of data will provide a more complete picture,” the authors wrote.
In a previous study published in the journal Emotion, Twenge and colleagues found drops in psychological well-being, measured by self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness, among American teens after 2012.
“Adolescents who spent more time on electronic communication and screens (e.g., social media, the Internet, texting, gaming) and less time on nonscreen activities (e.g., in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, attending religious services) had lower psychological well-being,” the authors observed.
“Adolescents spending a small amount of time on electronic communication were the happiest,” they added.