The Loneliness of the Adolescent

The Loneliness of the Adolescent

 By Jim Windell

            Which teenagers are most likely to become addicted to the internet?

            A new study looked at this and the results are, well, not very surprising. It is the lonely adolescent who is most likely to become a compulsive user of the internet.

            The reason, according to a recent article in the journal Child Development, is that teens are more lonely than ever and spending time alone leads them to turn to spending longer and longer amounts of time online.

            The study, led by Katariina Salmela-Aro, Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki, set out to investigate detrimental internet use by adolescents. A total of 1,750 Finnish adolescents were studied at three points in time: at 16, 17 and 18 years of age.

           The results show that the risk of being drawn into problematic internet use was at its highest among 16-year-old adolescents, with the phenomenon being more common among boys. For some of these mid-adolescent boys, the problem persists into adulthood, but for others it eases up as they grow older. Typically, as adolescents mature, their self-regulation and control improve, all while their brains are adapt and they are focusing more on schoolwork.

           As it turns out, though,Salmela-Aro  and her colleagues also found in their research that the household climate and parenting was a factor as well. Children of distant parents have a higher risk of drifting into detrimental internet use. And if parents are not very interested in the lives of their adolescents, their teens may have difficulty putting limits on their actions.

           The researchers also discovered a connection between compulsive internet use and depression. Interestingly, depression predicted problematic internet use, while problematic use further increased depressive symptoms. In addition, problematic use of the internet was predictive of poorer academic success, which may be associated with the fact that internet use consumes a great deal of time. Spending more time on the internet can disrupt adolescents' sleep rhythm and recovery, consequently eating up the time available for academic effort and performance.

           "In the coronavirus period, loneliness has increased markedly among adolescents,” says Katariina Salmela-Aro.  “They look for a sense of belonging from the internet. Lonely adolescents head to the internet and are at risk of becoming addicted. Internet addiction can further aggravate their malaise, such as depression."

           Salmela-Aro points out that adolescents' internet use is a two-edged sword: while the consequences of moderate use are positive, the effects of compulsive use can be detrimental. Compulsive use denotes, among other things, gaming addiction or the constant monitoring of likes on social media and comparisons to others.

           So, while it is somewhat comforting to know that problematic internet use is adaptive and often changes in late adolescence – during the transition to adulthood – it is necessary to pay attention to how much time teenagers are spending online. Both parents and therapists should address an adolescent’s loneliness to help them find healthier ways to deal with boredom and depression and avoid compulsive internet use.

            To read the original journal article, find it with this reference:

István Tóth‐Király, Alexandre J.S. Morin, Lauri Hietajärvi, Katariina Salmela‐Aro. Longitudinal Trajectories, Social and Individual Antecedents, and Outcomes of Problematic Internet Use Among Late Adolescents. Child Development, 2021; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13525


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