Loneliness among teenagers has increased over the years

Online extremism and even everyday social media interactions can socioculturally impact people’s beliefs and brains over time. Today, lethal behaviors have become embedded in cultural reality in contexts such as the United States; For example, eighteen-year-old men across the nation committed a mass murder by shooting within two weeks.

Also during this time, another US-based teenage boy was arrested and charged with unlawfully carrying an AK-47 style pistol and a replica AR-15 style rifle; both guns were found in his parked car in the gun-free school zone. These behaviors may be related to well-established research on teen well-being and loneliness around the world (Twenge et al., 2021).

Loneliness in school and teenagers around the world

Twenge et al. (2021) used the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) dataset to access information on over one million teenagers from 37 countries around the world.

The researchers focused on items measuring teen loneliness at school. School loneliness is known as the opposite of school attachment and school affiliation. Researchers analyzed items measuring teen loneliness at school in 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 a lower quality of life.

The researchers were not only interested in using their scores to assess whether or not teenagers were depressed; Instead, they were interested in trends in teens’ average scores. This enabled the differentiation of teenagers who appeared to be mentally at risk for several reported years. The global nature of the data and the multi-year data collection provided information about cultural shifts relevant to well-being trends.

The teenagers were given six statements about school loneliness to which they could respond: ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’. Their answers were scored from 1 to 4, with higher scores indicating greater loneliness. The six statements are as follows:

  • “I feel like an outsider (or left out) at school.”
  • “I make friends quickly at school” (rated backwards)
  • “I feel like I belong in school” (reverse review)
  • “I feel awkward and out of place in my school.”
  • “Other students seem to like me” (reverse review)
  • “I feel lonely at school.”

Digital media: smartphones, internet and social media

Researchers have noted a significant cultural shift in teen loneliness at school as of 2012 (Twenge et al., 2021). According to the researchers, 2012 was the first year most Americans owned a smartphone, leading to daily social media use.

However, by 2010, researchers indicated that a critical mass was engaging with this type of communication and entertainment. Between 2010 and 2012, changes in human processing, thinking, and sociocultural engagement likely began to shift significantly.

The research showed an upward shift in school loneliness between 2012 and 2018. Now, in 2022, we are witnessing a decade of the impact of the internet and digital media on teen cultures, minds, emotions and brains. Vivek Murthy, United States Surgeon General, included a section on digital media in his Advisory Report on Adolescent Mental Health.

Need for intimacy and desire for belonging

The teenager who committed the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, is said to have been a loner, subjected to bullying and engaged in attention-grabbing behavior on a social media platform. Each of these experiences reflects a deficit in intimacy and a desire to belong, which can affect neurochemicals and the brain (Vitale & Smith, 2022).

I have discussed similar life experiences in other young male shooters based on analysis of the history of mass shootings in the United States (Lewis, 2020). Teenage radicalization online may be related to neurocognitive and emotional explanations.

His motives for belonging may include developing interests in joining racially toxic white supremacist groups. Other factors are also important, such as the ease of convincing neurologically immature and lonely teenagers to learn, believe in, and associate with numerous contemporary Western fascist ideologies.

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Culture, socialization and the brain

It’s easy to focus on the culture of the US because of the repeated mass shootings of young men there. However, researchers revealed that the existence of reported school loneliness among teenagers is global (Twenge et al., 2021).

The relevant behaviors teens may choose to engage in may differ across cultures, but their underlying feelings point to the same emotion. It is also important to note that the results on increasing school loneliness were based on responses from both girls and boys, but we rarely see the same patterns of mass shootings and radicalization among those with female identities. Again, we need to look at the interplay of culture, socialization, neurochemicals, and the brain.

There has been a significant cultural shift in the world when it comes to how people interact in real life versus increasingly online. However, real-life social interactions are important for psychological and neurological well-being. A logical conclusion is to try to delay children’s immersion in smartphone use, internet time and social media as primary means of social engagement.

These cultural realities do not cause scholastic loneliness. However, they were found to be significantly more relevant to school loneliness than other potential influences such as family size, income inequality, gross domestic product, and unemployment across countries. Parents could also find ways to ask teens real-life questions about school loneliness and have in-depth discussions with them about their answers.

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