Loneliness among youth

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A lonely teenage girl sits on the floor while looking at her phone. Having the “blahs,” feeling “blue,” or getting “down in the dumps.” It goes by many names, and many of us have experienced loneliness or seen how it has impacted a loved one. As awareness of the loneliness epidemic increases, research has highlighted how the condition impacts health. 

The trouble is that much of the existing research on loneliness focuses on older adults. So what about folks in the in-between stages of life? Loneliness is escalating among youth and young adults, so let’s explore how loneliness impacts youth and what’s causing it.

How loneliness impacts youth

Young people seemingly have no troubles in life. They get to prioritize their social lives and have not yet faced significant hardships or major responsibilities. So it stands to reason that they would be more engaged and satisfied, right? 

That’s not always the case. In fact, an active social calendar doesn’t mean much. Loneliness can even impact individuals who are surrounded by people, and it is prevalent among youth and young adults. Scientific data backs this up, indicating that 71 percent of millennials experienced loneliness in 2020. But it’s not strictly a pandemic-era problem — and not just a millennial issue. In 2018, nearly twice as many teens were lonely compared to 2012.

So why are young people so lonely? We’re still learning about loneliness in youth and young adults. However, loneliness is one of the top risk factors for depression, anxiety, suicide, obesity and diabetes

Providers need to understand loneliness to improve health outcomes. That’s because often when people experience loneliness, their perceptions of care become skewed, and they struggle to engage in health care decisions. A few key items can usually help predict a higher likelihood of loneliness, such as chronic diseases, mental health struggles and SDOH challenges. But more specifically, science has unlocked several possible causes of loneliness in youth. 

5 causes of loneliness among youth

Young people don’t like to feel alone any more than anyone else. We’re making strides in uncovering some of the most common reasons loneliness is so widespread among teens and young adults.

1. Social isolation in childhood 

Unsurprisingly, isolation during the most formative years of development often gives way to loneliness in young adulthood. Young adults who are lonely are more likely to have been bullied and socially isolated as children. 

Consider this: During his school years, Jason was shy and had different interests than his peers, so he struggled to make friends. Today, he’s finding success as an entry-level professional but feels lonely and depressed. 

Lonely youth don’t feel as integrated with and attached to their schools. Like Jason, they also have poorer self-rated health and stronger depressive symptoms in early adulthood. This differs wildly from transitional-age youth who are well-liked, as they are less likely to report feeling lonely.

2. Low self-esteem 

High or low self-esteem? Self-image has ripple effects and can cause young people to feel lonely or depressed.

When youth have low self-esteem, there’s a dark cloud hovering over them. They begin to withdraw socially, feeling rejected and different from others. BMC Psychiatry conducted a meta-synthesis of fourteen qualitative studies describing loneliness among young people with depression. Overall, they found that loneliness and low self-esteem increase the probability of depression. The problem is that when someone is depressed, they’re less likely to engage with their health. 

3. Unhealthy attachment styles

How you bond with others matters — so much so that scientists began looking into attachment theory as far back as the 1950s. In a nutshell, the theory looks at how one’s bond with their caregivers impacts their relationships throughout life. Attachment theory was pioneered by John Bowlby and describes four attachment styles:

  • Secure: Youth are more likely to see others as supportive and consequently relate positively to them, display resilience, and engage with other children. 
  • Avoidant: Youth are less effective in managing stress and more likely to withdraw, resist seeking help, and show aggression and antisocial behavior.
  • Anxious: Youth lack self-confidence, display exaggerated emotional reactions, and are more likely to be antisocial and keep their distance from their peers, leading to social isolation.
  • Disorganized: Youth fail to develop strategies to cope with separation distress, as well as display aggression, disruptive behaviors, and social isolation — seeing others as threats.

Although there's no precise formula for predicting behavioral health issues, research shows that youth with unhealthy attachment styles are more frequently diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, possibly due to abuse, neglect, or trauma.

In particular, the transition to college can be a turning point or a stumbling block. Young people often find themselves and their independence. But among youths entering college, the loneliest had unhealthy attachment styles and struggled to seek support from peers and teachers. As a result, they faced higher chances of health risks associated with loneliness.

Download How to Fight Loneliness in Young Adults to gain insights into the  struggles young people face and how to help.

4. Gender differences

Gender also factors into loneliness. Adult women exhibit higher rates of loneliness and depression than men, but this difference between men and women isn’t consistent throughout life. 

Earlier in life, the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. Among youth, boys feel more lonely than girls because girls tend to seek relationships, whereas boys spend more time alone — and LGBTQIA youth face unique struggles with loneliness as well.

5. No reason at all

Have you ever felt lonely or depressed and couldn’t put your finger on why when loved ones reached out? This is universal and happens whether you’re 15 or 50. Transitional-age youth can just as easily fall into a “funk” as their adult counterparts. They may be unable to identify feelings of loneliness because there’s no specific cause.

Mitigate loneliness among youth with Pyx Health

The term “growing pains” isn’t just a cliché. The psychological and social experiences of transitional-age youth have the power to significantly impact their feelings of loneliness and physical health as they reach adulthood. Social isolation, gender differences, attachment styles and other factors all impact feelings of loneliness — resulting in lack of engagement in their health and receiving the right care at the right time, as well as poor health outcomes.

The good news is that there are ways to manage this. With our science-based programming and app, Pyx Health provides strength-building tools for youth. Our innovative and compassion-centered platform allows youth to feel comfortable being vulnerable. Here’s just a sample of the benefits:

  • Non-judgmental, anonymous phone calls and direct messages with staff members (ANDYs) who have relatable life experiences
  • Pyxir chatbot to discuss bullying, body image and other sensitive topics
  • Coordination with health plan care management teams for access to resources

Want to learn more? Explore our youth program and see how your organization can implement the platform for young members.

eBook cover of How to Fight Loneliness in Young Adults