- Worldwide there have been increases in adolescent loneliness.
- Nearly twice as many adolescents in 2018 vs. 2012 had elevated levels of school loneliness.
- Research has found school loneliness to be high as cultural shifts occurred to greater smartphone access and higher internet use.
Online extremism and even everyday social media interactions can socio-culturally influence humans' beliefs and brains over time. Nowadays, lethal behaviors have become embedded in the cultural reality in contexts such as the United States; for example, within two weeks, eighteen-year-old males in the nation committed mass murder by shooting.
Also, during this time, yet another USA-based teen male was arrested and charged with unlawful carrying of an AK-47-style pistol and a replica AR-15-style rifle; both weapons were found in his parked car in the weapon-free school zone. These behaviors may be related to globally-based research findings regarding the well-being and loneliness of teens (Twenge et al., 2021).
School Loneliness and Teens Around the World
Twenge et al. (2021) used the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) dataset to access information from over a million teens representing 37 countries of the world.
The researchers focused on items measuring the teens' school loneliness. School loneliness is known as the inverse of school connectedness and school belonging. The researchers analyzed items measuring teens' school loneliness across 2000, 2003, 2012, 2015, and 2018. The researchers were interested in school loneliness because it is a predictor of well-being and depression, which are associated with lower quality of life.
Researchers were not merely interested in assessing whether teens were depressed or not according to their scores; instead, they were interested in trends regarding the teens' average scores. This allowed for discernment of teens who appeared to be psychologically at risk across various years reported. The global nature of the data and multiple years of data collection provided information about cultural changes relevant to trends in well-being.
Teens were presented with six statements about loneliness at school, to which they could respond, “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “strongly agree,” and “agree.” Their responses were scored from 1 to 4, with higher scores indicating more loneliness. Below are the six statements:
- "I feel like an outsider (or left out of things) at school."
- "I make friends easily at school” (reverse-scored)
- "I feel like I belong at school” (reverse-scored)
- "I feel awkward and out of place in my school."
- "Other students seem to like me" (reverse-scored)
- "I feel lonely at school."
Digital Media: Smartphones, Internet, and Social media
Researchers revealed a significant cultural change in teens' school loneliness beginning in 2012 (Twenge et al., 2021). According to the researchers, 2012 was the first year when most Americans owned a smartphone leading to daily social media use.
However, by the year 2010, researchers stated that a critical mass was engaged in this manner of communicating and entertaining themselves. Between the years 2010 and 2012, changes in human processing, thinking, and socio-cultural engagement likely began to shift in a significant way.
The research results showed an upward shift in school loneliness between 2012 and 2018. Now, in the year 2022, we are witnessing a decade of internet and digital media's impact on culture, minds, emotions, and teens' brains. Vivek Murthy, United States surgeon general, included a section on digital media in his advisory report on youth mental health.
Need for Intimacy and Desire to Belong
The teen who committed the Uvalde, Texas massacre was reported as having been a loner, bullied, and displayed attention-seeking behavior using a social media platform. Each of these experiences reflects a deficit of intimacy and reflects a desire to belong, which can impact neurochemicals and the brain (Vitale & Smith, 2022).
I've discussed similar life experiences among other young male shooters based on analyzing the history of mass shootings in the United States (Lewis, 2020). The online radicalization of teens may possibly relate to neurocognitive and emotional explanations.
His motivations to belong can include developing interests in joining racially toxic groups of white supremacists. Other factors are important, too, such as the ease of persuading neurologically immature and lonely teens to learn, believe in, and connect with numerous contemporary western fascist ideologies.
Culture, Socialization, and the Brain
It is easy to focus on the culture of the U.S. because of its repeated incidents of mass shootings committed by young men. Yet, researchers revealed that the existence of school loneliness reported among teens is global (Twenge et al., 2021).
The relevant behaviors that teens may opt to engage in may differ cross-culturally, but their underlying feelings point to the same emotion. It is also important to note that the results about increased school loneliness were based on the responses of girls and boys, yet rarely do we see the same patterns of mass shooting and radicalization in female-identified persons. Again, we must look at the interplay of culture, socialization, neurochemicals, and the brain.
Significant cultural change has taken place in the world regarding how humans engage with one another in real life versus increasingly now online. Yet real-life social interactions are important for psychological and neurological well-being. A logical conclusion is to try and delay children's emersion into smartphone use, internet time, and social media as primary means of social engagement.
These cultural realities don't cause school loneliness. Yet, they were shown to have significantly more relevance to school loneliness than other potential influences such as family size, income inequality, gross domestic product, and unemployment across various countries. Parents might also find ways to pose in-real-life questions to teens about school loneliness and have a deep discussions with them about their answers.
Lewis, M. K. (2020). Our biosocial brains: The cultural neuroscience of bias, power, and social injustice. Lexington Books, pgs. 115-130.
Twenge, J.M., Haidt, J., Blake, A. B., McAllister, C., Lemon, H. & Le Roy, A. (2021). Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness. Journal of Adolescence, 93, 257-269. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2021.06.006
Vitale, E. M. & Smith, A. D. (2022). Neurobiology of loneliness, isolation, and loss: Integrating human and animal perspectives. Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2022.846315