- The mental health needs of kids has dramatically increased since 2012, due to smartphone access and increased internet use.
- Worldwide, nearly twice as many adolescents had elevated levels of loneliness in 2018 compared to 2012.
- Loneliness in middle schoolers can lead to increased levels of depression and anxiety.
As a child psychiatrist and a dad, I’m probably, for better or worse, more aware than most of the latest frightening studies on the rapid increases in loneliness, anxiety, and depression in our youth. The last few years have been hard on everyone, but especially our kids.
According to the Journal of Adolescence’s study, "Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness," the mental health needs of adolescents around the world began to increase after 2012, in large part due to the rise of smartphone access and increased internet use. Worldwide, nearly twice as many adolescents in 2018 had elevated levels of loneliness than they did in 2012. And unfortunately, since the pandemic, loneliness in our youth is at a record high because, as I covered in my last post, we are social beings and our brains have developed over millennia to interact with other humans. We are literally hardwired to need connection with others in some capacity, and the last few years have taken that away from us—especially our kids—in so many ways.
Since so much of our lives have changed over the course of the last two years, Common Sense Media and the Hope Lab conducted a study last year that looked into teenagers, mental health, and social media use post-pandemic. The study showed that “rates of depressive symptoms have increased substantially among teens and young adults over the past two years,” with 38 percent of all 14- to 22-year-olds reporting symptoms of moderate to severe depression, up from 25 percent in 2018.
Middle school age is arguably the toughest developmental stage for kids, with socializing being top of mind for every child in some capacity. It’s a time full of changes and new beginnings, where they feel more grown-up than they actually are while holding desperately to that inner child. Not only are middle schoolers dealing with the pressures of an increased homework load and keeping up with assignments, but they now have to navigate social pressures, deal with the disappointments of not being invited to hangouts and parties, and probably the most difficult of all: navigating the digital world of social media. In my opinion, it’s tougher than ever to be a middle schooler.
If you are here reading this post, you are most likely a parent, grandparent caretaker, teacher, or mental health professional and are worried about a child in your life. I hope to reassure you that there are ways to spot issues before they become too serious. Even if your middle schooler is already dealing with serious challenges, there are ways to help.
After more than two decades working with children and families as a psychiatrist, here are my five initial ways to identify signs of loneliness in your middle schooler that can lead to increased levels of anxiety or depression:
They've Gone Through Big Changes
Big changes are hard for anyone, but especially for kids who are already going through major developmental and neurological changes. If the child has recently moved to a new city or school, they are dealing with a significant level of change in their life. They could be worried about making new friends, finding their locker, or even something as seemingly simple as decorating their new room to reflect their personality when new friends come over.
During these transitions, it's important to be attuned to your child’s chance of becoming lonely. This can include being more withdrawn or avoidant, being more "clingy," or even regressing or acting more like the child you remember in the elementary school years. Instead of being annoyed or frustrated by this change in behavior, it is important for parents to realize that they are acting this way for a reason and to reach out to help them.
They Feel Left Out or Want More Friends
Friends are critically important in the middle school years, whether they are hanging out in person or online. Even the most socially independent child still craves connection. If you hear your child wishing for more friends or talking about how they were left out of something, don’t ignore it. Try to probe further with your child. Much of their developing brains and sense of self is rooted in strong family and friend connections. It teaches them to interact and grow as humans, so even your desire to connect with and help them through this difficult time can instill confidence in other relationships they are trying to form.
Even the seemingly most social child who has endless friends can still experience loneliness. In a Psychology Today post, Eglantine Julle-Daniere wrote about the difference between loneliness and aloneness. In it, she stated that you can be alone and not feel lonely, and you can be lonely and not be alone. The negative implications of loneliness come from the perception of feeling isolated and ostracized and not merely being alone, so it is important to also check in with kids who seem to have an active social life to make sure they aren’t feeling lonely, despite being surrounded by friends.
They Seem to Be on a “Different Level” Than Their Peers
By the middle school years, the social-emotional development of children can range widely. For more precocious children or those with delays, this could mean they no longer relate to their peers as they once did. As a parent, you often know your child best. Therefore, as an example, if you have a more advanced child, intellectually their emotional intelligence could be lagging. This could lead to difficulties socializing with certain friend groups and associated loneliness.
If they aren’t finding kids they can connect with in school, try finding an afterschool club, organization, or team they can join that fits their interests. Sometimes, putting them in a different situation with people outside of their school bubble can empower them and encourage them to make new connections.
They Might Be Getting Bullied
As parents, we can’t imagine why someone would want to be mean to our child, but it happens more often than we can realize. In a Tween Cyberbullying study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, researchers found that 80 percent of teens have been bullied in some form, whether at school or online. The study found that bullying had a negative effect on many areas of their lives, from feeling bad about themselves, to the bullying affecting their friendships and even their physical health and schoolwork.
If you notice changes in any of these areas of your child’s life, they could be getting bullied at school or online, so it is important to check in with them. A child may not want to initially open up to you about the bullying because they may feel embarrassed or ashamed They may also feel that they are to blame or even worried that you might get involved and make the situation worse. The best thing you can do is to make your child feel heard and safe and to let them know that you will fix this together.
They Exhibit Signs of Sadness or Social Disconnection
Along with feeling lonely, it is important to look for signs of sadness or being disconnected socially. In other words, rather than not having friends, they may no longer want to be with their friends or do the things they once enjoyed.
If this is the case, it may be a sign of depression or anxiety that would require further assessment. You as a parent are the most important resource, but sometimes you need to bring in other tools from your toolbox to help your child, like a therapist. Start by asking your child if they feel down or sad, and assure them there is help available. Reach out to your child’s doctor to see if they know of a mental health professional that can talk to your child.
Being a middle schooler is incredibly hard right now, but we as parents and caregivers can do our best to support them by identifying these five signs and getting them the help they need. Along with checking in with them, try to take them out and do something fun to help them feel supported. Go for a walk around the neighborhood to look at the holiday lights, take them out for ice cream, or have a pizza and movie night at home. They may fight you on it at first, but just by showing that you care and want to connect with them, they may begin to realize that they aren’t as lonely as they once thought.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Lam, J.A., Murray, E.R., Yu, K.E. et al. Neurobiology of loneliness: a systematic review. Neuropsychopharmacol. 46, 1873–1887 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-021-01058-7.
Vitalie E.M., Smith, A.S. Neurobiology of Loneliness, Isolation, and Loss: Integrating Human and Animal Perspectives. Front. Behav. Neurosci., 08 April 2022. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2022.846315/full
Julle-Daniere, E. Being Alone vs. Being Lonely: What are you going to do today to beat loneliness? Psychology Today blog. April 16, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-emotion/202004/being-al…
Twenge, J., Jonathan Haidt, Blake, A., McAllister, C., Lemon, H., & Le Roy, A. (2021). Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness. Journal of Adolescence. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140197121000853.