How does loneliness impact well-being among youth?
Research explores the experience of loneliness influencing well-being among youths.
The reduced social interactions during the COVID-19 mandated lockdowns and subsequent restrictions resulted in many people experiencing profound loneliness which can be detrimental to both physical and mental health. Individuals faced tremendous pressure to maintain their well-being while being socially isolated from the rest of the world. Specifically for young adults, whose lives revolve around forming social networks, reduced opportunities to interact and form fulfilling relationships potentially made them vulnerable to physical and psychological health issues.
In a systematic scoping review carried out by Dr Jagdeep Kaur Sabharwal, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at James Cook University in Singapore, and Nuryn Aqidah Binte Mohammad Adib, Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) graduate, significant contributors to the experience of loneliness among youth were uncovered.
For starters, parental support plays a strong role in guarding against loneliness among youth. Notably, past memories of nurturing and loving parents provide individuals with higher autonomy and connectivity, and, in turn, less loneliness.
In addition, the review of studies on the topic gave evidence for the inhibiting effect of social support on loneliness, implying that social support from family and friends was effective in decreasing the experience of loneliness. According to Dr Sabharwal and Ms Binte Mohammad Adib, “Social support emerged as a significant mediator between interpersonal relationship and loneliness, specifically in the school setting. Not having close friends in adolescence was associated with higher experience of loneliness.” Consequently, “this could influence the future social trajectory of these individuals, where they could potentially lack friends and support network during young adulthood stage". Notably, for college-aged youth, only support from friends and romantic partners helped to mitigate loneliness, while family support was not associated with loneliness. The quality of relationship with teachers and same-sex friends also helped to reduce the experience of loneliness in adolescents.
Social media is also a common topic of discussion in relation to loneliness and well-being. However, there were mixed findings regarding its influence in this review. For example, Park and Lee's study (2012) found that the use of smartphones for supportive communication among university students improved social bonds and psychological well-being. Janta et al. (2014) found that online social interactions could act as a form of social support; doctoral students utilised online social platforms as a means of escape from their experience with loneliness in school. Moreover, having friends on social networking sites could help guard against loneliness. Phu and Gow (2019) found that having a greater number of Facebook friends increased subjective happiness and decreased loneliness.
As the authors point out, “Internet and social networking sites could both be tools to forge and nurture online relationships as well as lead to risky, impulsive, or excessive usage in lonely users. Fulfilling engaging relationships not only reduce loneliness but also can help control dysfunctional online behaviours like problematic or addictive internet usage that can result in social, emotional, physical, or functional impairment.”
It is worth reinforcing that loneliness can have debilitating consequences for well-being and mental health. Past studies have shown that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, increased stress, and diminished self-esteem.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen disruptions resulting in social isolation, confinement, loss of freedom, and a sense of uncertainty that significantly impacted the mental health and psychosocial well-being of youths. The review highlighted the limited works examining the experience of loneliness in youths in community settings. More studies focussing on understanding how young adults experience loneliness and how it affects their well-being should be conducted, so that the mental healthcare sector can be better equipped with solutions to tackle this growing problem. After all, emerging adulthood is a critical transitional period with focus on growth, gains, and planning for positive future.
Binte Mohammad Adib, N.A., Sabharwal, J.K. Experience of loneliness on well-being among young individuals: A systematic scoping review. Curr Psychol (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-023-04445-z
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