LONDON — The teen years can be a tumultuous time for many kids. Many adolescents feel as though no one in their life truly understands them, and often feel lonely as a result. Now, a new study by a team at King’s College London has found a connection between teenage loneliness and poorer grades in school.
According to the findings, adolescents reporting loneliness starting around the age of 12 are more likely to leave school with lower grades than their less-lonely classmates. Notably, this effect held up even if the teen stopped feeling lonely later on.
The study indicates that both temporary and long-lasting loneliness during one’s teen years increases the risk of various negative life outcomes such as self-harm, excessive and compulsive smartphone use, smoking, and poor mental health in general. Study authors speculate that if a lonely teen isn’t receiving the proper support, all that loneliness can ultimately result in “a negative change in social position relative to where they started.”
Even temporary loneliness can cause distress
Researchers gathered 2,232 participants from England and Wales via the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study. From there, they looked into a number of life outcomes by the time the children turned 18, such as overall well-being, perceived loneliness, and educational success.
That analysis strongly indicated that adolescents who dealt with loneliness were more likely to experience negative life outcomes than their peers. For instance, by the age of 18, those experiencing loneliness over the prior six years were the most likely to suffer from depression, low life satisfaction, poor sleep quality, and anxiety.
“Our study demonstrates that loneliness during someone’s teenage years can have serious impact on their later life. In 2018, nearly half of 10-12 year olds reported feeling lonely at least some of the time, with as many as 15% saying that they often felt that way,” says first lead study author Dr. Timothy Matthews, from King’s IoPPN, in a university release. “Loneliness, however temporary, can be an extremely distressing experience, and we should make every effort to support those that need it so that they can overcome it.”
The right support network can trump genetics
Teens who only reported feeling lonely around the age of 12 before “recovering” were generally less likely to deal with poor mental health, but they were still at an increased risk of finishing school with “low qualifications.” According to study authors, this suggests that loneliness early in life causes serious disruptions to a child’s emotional development, often resulting in lost developmental ground that is near impossible to recover without outside support.
The researchers also found that certain genetic factors can predispose certain teens toward loneliness more than others. However, researchers stress that environmental factors like a supporting home environment and loving parents usually trump genetics.
“This study attests to the importance of early interventions to ensure that lonely young people, particularly those in the first couple of years of secondary school, are identified and given the support that they need to ensure they don’t start on the back foot,” concludes senior study author Prof. Louise Arseneault of King’s IoPPN.
The study is published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.