Student Well-Being What the Research Says

What Educators Need to Know About the ‘Epidemic of Loneliness’ Among Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 10, 2023 5 min read
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National experts warn an “epidemic of loneliness” may be driving the rise of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems, particularly among adolescents. Helping students understand how to make social connections may be key to spurring their academic and emotional growth.

In a report released earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy found rates of loneliness reported among young adults have risen every year for more than a decade. Teenagers spent nearly 70 percent less time hanging out with friends in person in 2020 than they did in 2003: 40 minutes a day with friends, down from 140 minutes a day nearly two decades ago.

“This crisis of loneliness and this mental health crisis is on everyone’s mind,” said Melissa Schlinger, the vice president of innovations and partnerships at the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. “The levels of anxiety and depression and suicide were already at all-time highs before the pandemic, and, certainly they have been exacerbated” by physical and social isolation during the pandemic.

Doretta Pirollo Martelli, a 24-year English-language and special education teacher at Bunker Hill Middle School in Sewell, N.J., said she has seen significant changes in her students’ social connections in recent years. “Sadly, loneliness and isolation are paramount among the concerns we regularly discuss at our staff meetings,” she said.

Being alone isn’t necessarily unhealthy. In fact, students can be quiet or introverted while still having meaningful friendships and school engagement. Loneliness, by contrast, is a feeling of absence of meaningful social relationships. A student can be lonely because of physical distance from friends—as was common during the pandemic—or experience social isolation due to anxiety or bullying.

The Surgeon General notes three key aspects of social connection:

  • Structure: The number and variety of relationships a student has, including friends and family, as well as how often they interact. In-person social interactions, for example, had declined even before the pandemic, in part due to students spending more time on social media and online.
  • Function, or the needs relationships serve. A student with peer friends may still feel the lack of a mentor relationship, for example, if there are no strong adult relationships at school.
  • Quality, or whether relationships are generally positive or negative.

“Just like exercise and nutrition, our relationships with one another are fundamental components of our overall health and well-being,” said Surgeon General Murthy last week in a briefing.

Schlinger said both young and older students who were isolated during the pandemic need more explicit lessons in how to make friends, navigate social interactions, and understand social cues.

For example, in a recent study of about 1,900 students ages 9-17, Oliver Scott Curry, the chief science officer of the nonprofit Kindness.org, and his colleagues found children and teenagers are more likely than adults to judge behaviors based on benefits to others. Younger and older adolescents alike considered standing up for someone being bullied as one of the kindest things they could do. But Curry noted that while children and teens understand the benefits of specific behaviors, such as donating to a food bank or writing a get-well letter to a sick classmate, they are less aware of how to navigate social interactions and relationships.

“Kids are to some extent more reliant than adults on the sort of unconditional kindness of family members,” Curry said. “And they’ve yet to fully emerge from the cocoon to start establishing more mature, reciprocal relationships with others.”

Cautions on social media

In part, the Surgeon General’s and other reports say the broad adoption of social media may be exacerbating students’ social isolation since the pandemic. For example, research shows students who used social media for more than two hours a day were twice as likely to say they were socially isolated than those who used social media for less than 30 minutes per day.

And among secondary students, loneliness rose steadily from 2012 to 2018, according to a longitudinal analysis of adolescents in 37 countries. Students felt similarly isolated regardless of their family income or size—but students with frequent Internet and smartphone use were more likely to report feeling lonely.

Pirollo Martelli, the N.J. middle school teacher, said she’s seen that firsthand.

“I am a huge proponent of technology, but I also can see how technology has changed the face of childhood,” she said. “Our students are much more content to use technology to communicate than to talk face to face. This has certainly impacted their social skills and abilities to interact, which, in turn, has exacerbated the problems of loneliness and isolation.”

During pandemic lockdowns, two of Pirollo Martelli’s 7th grade classes struggled both academically and socially. She focused some of her remote lessons on building her students’ empathy and helping them find ways to continue to reach out to each other.

For example, students used emojis to identify facial expressions and discuss how body language affected the students’ real-life conversations and relationships. The lessons helped students understand their facial expressions and body language impacted others—such as rolling their eyes when an adult is talking to them being seen as disrespectful—and taught them how they can be empathetic to others once they understood what someone else’s body language was expressing. Over time, “a gentle reminder of how their body language was interpreted by others staved off many behaviors that would have resulted in some sort of disciplinary action or conflict with other students.”

It’s important not to rely on stand-alone programs or events to help students build social connections, Schlinger said, but to structure academic activities in ways that encourage collaboration.

For example, rather than organizing class time on lectures or directing class conversations by calling on individual students, Schlinger suggested partnered and small-group activities to give kids opportunities to build relationships.

“Especially as kids get older, there are more opportunities for youth voice and engagement and leadership opportunities and more collaborative problem solving,” Schlinger said.

“We know that kids are social beings and want nothing more than to feel connected and belonging, especially with their peers,” Schlinger said. “That requires a skilled teacher who can not only be really intentional about his or her relationship with students, but also create that classroom environment and experiences that promote connection among students.”

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