Blog: We need to talk about teenage loneliness and technology

By Tristia Harrison. TalkTalk CEO

Feelings of loneliness and isolation among our teenagers is something we all worry about. If we’re being honest, it’s also one of those topics that can be more difficult or awkward to confront the older our children get. Trying to do the right thing, however, gets even more complicated when considering teenagers’ use of technology and how that might be contributing to those feelings as well.

Young people engage with technology in completely different ways than even 10 years ago and, for some adults, it can be a fast-changing, confusing and frankly alien world at times.

But rather than let this situation continue unaddressed, I believe it’s time we took more control. We need to understand how young people are using technology, why and what their experiences are – good and bad – when it comes to making them feel more or less engaged with the real world. 

Without this sort of understanding how can parents effectively help their teenagers navigate the digital world and ensure the internet and social media are a positive influence on their lives? We want to bring up our children in the best way possible, but how can we do that in relation to their use of technology if we are in the dark about what’s going on and what our children’s real experiences are?

To help answer these fundamental questions, TalkTalk has undertaken a detailed research project which asks questions specifically about the intersection of technology and loneliness. We have asked these questions of both parents of teenagers aged 13 to 16 years’ old, and the teenagers themselves which makes the study unique.  We have examined the specific role technology plays in feelings of loneliness from both the parents’ and the child’s perspective. The findings reveal the often very different attitudes within families about how technology and loneliness are linked. You can read the full report here.

But whilst TalkTalk understands the technology, we don’t pretend to be experts on child development and safety. That’s why I’m delighted we have been able to work with Dr Rebecca Nowland from the University of Central Lancashire and Internet Matters, the online safety organisation, to analyse the data and draw conclusions that we hope will help families navigate the digital world they inhabit.

What’s clear from the report’s findings is that the actual experiences of teenagers are quite different from the fears and anxieties expressed by parents. For instance just a quarter of parents think that social media and the internet are making their child less lonely compared to nearly half of the teenagers questioned. Similarly, a quarter of parents think social media and the internet could be a solution to their teenagers’ loneliness compared to 51% of teenagers themselves.

Most parents (70%) say they’re worried about their child’s use of technology yet nearly two thirds (65%) say they do not limit the time their teenagers spend online. Tellingly, more than a third (37%) of parents say they feel ill-equipped to help manage their child’s technology and intent use safely.

I’m proud that TalkTalk has a long history of leading industry efforts to ensure the internet is a safer place for young people. But as technology constantly evolves, it presents new issues and challenges. 

When the Government launched its first loneliness strategy in October 2018, it said that loneliness was: “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.” This report is an important contribution to understanding the realities of loneliness among teenagers, specifically in relation to their use of technology, so that society can help meet the challenge.

The report is also designed to be of real practical to help to parents too. TalkTalk has partnered with Internet Matters, the not-for-profit online safety organisation, to provide practical guidance and advice for parents to help their teenage children navigate the online world and tackle the complex issue of loneliness.

Please do read the findings and advice and feel free to let us know what you think.

By Tristia Harrison, TalkTalk CEO