Teen loneliness increased alongside emergence of smartphones, study suggests

School loneliness was not related to income inequality, or family size, but did increase alongside the emergence of smartphones

Teen loneliness, particularly among adolescent girls, has been increasing worldwide since 2012, which researchers said also coincides with the rise in smartphone access and increased internet use, although more data is needed to determine a definitive link.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, drew on data collected from over 1 million 15 and 16-year-olds living in 37 different countries around the world. The teens completed a measure of loneliness survey in 2000, 2003, 2012, 2015 and 2018. 

The questionnaire included topics like "I feel like an outsider (or left out of things) at school," "I make friends easily at school," "I feel like I belong at school," "I feel awkward and out of place in my school," "Other students seem to like me," and "I feel lonely at school." Students were instructed to reply on a scale of 1-4 with the following choices; strongly disagree, disagree, strongly agree, and agree. Responses were added together and divided by six to calculate a mean score. 

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In 2012, 2015 and 2018, 31 countries added questions pertaining to use of technology and availability at home. Students were also asked about their overall general life satisfaction. The data correlated to an increase in school loneliness between 2000 and 2018, with nearly all of the increase occurring between 2012 and 2018, according to the researchers. 

"Worldwide, nearly twice as many adolescents in 2018 scored high in loneliness than in 2000, with much of the increase occurring after 2012," the team stated. 

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However, they noted that even with the recent increases, the majority of students involved in the study did not report high levels of loneliness. 

"We employed multi-level modeling to examine group-level associations among school loneliness as a continuous variable, digital media use, economic conditions, and family size across countries over several years," the researchers wrote. "In both additive and interaction models including year, school loneliness was high when smartphone access and internet use were high. Thus, digital media use predicts school loneliness above the monotonic effect of time." 

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They pointed out that school loneliness was not significantly related to income inequality, or family size. 

"Although these analyses cannot prove causation, they demonstrate that loneliness grew among adolescents around the world in tandem with widespread smartphone and internet use," researchers wrote.