Posted: 2 May 2019

Teenagers are more optimistic about technology as a solution for loneliness than their parents

Technology has become an integral part of young people’s social lives, with technology increasing young people’s opportunities for social connection, in a way that previous generations have never experienced. Social media is often argued to be the cause of loneliness in adolescence, but TalkTalk’s Teenage Loneliness and Technology Report shows that young people report other factors as influencing their loneliness more than technology.

Talk Talk’s Teenage Loneliness and Technology report reveals a generational divide between parents and their teenage children about the impact of technology on loneliness. The findings are unique because parents and their teenage child were surveyed enabling an insightful examination of differences and similarities between their responses.

Only 26% of parents felt that using technology was making their teenage child feel less lonely, in contrast to 48% of their teenage children who felt that technology reduced their feelings of loneliness. In addition, more than half (51%) of young people said that during times when they have felt lonely. But only a quarter of parents (25%) agreed that technology could be a solution for loneliness. So why is there this generational divide? What may be influencing this difference in parents and their teenage children’s perceptions about technology and social connection?

When my colleagues at the University of Chicago and I conducted a review of the literature, we found that different generations engage with technology in different ways and the impacts of technology on loneliness differ across one generation to another. For example, when social media is used for communication predominately in the elderly it has positive impacts on loneliness, but the opposite is the case in adult populations; using the internet for communication is associated with increased loneliness in younger populations because it results in a displacement of face-to-face communication.

Talk Talk’s Teenage Loneliness and Technology report findings revealed that more than a third of parents (36%) felt that social media had a negative impact on their own health and well-being. It is possible, that when parents think about the influence technology has on their child’s well-being they reflect on their own experiences of social media. If those have been negative experiences, this may inflate their concerns about the social impacts on their teenage children.

Adolescents reported using technology most commonly to stay in contact with their peers; chatting to their friends online, playing games online with friends, sharing experiences and keeping in contact with friends who had moved away or live a distance away from them. Technology was also used by adolescents to connect with other people facing similar challenges or to get help and support from others for something that they were finding difficult. So, technology is used by young people as a tool to remain in contact with friends when they are not present and to connect and make friends with peers who have similar interests or challenges with them; widening their opportunities for social connection, thus, likely to be reducing their loneliness, rather than increasing it.

An awareness of this generational difference in perspectives about technology is important because it is likely to impact on communications that parents have with their teenage children. Research has shown that when parents maintain an open and positive dialogue with their teenage children about technology this buffers adolescents from experiencing loneliness when they go online. Technologies are now an integral part of young people’s lives and offer them positive ways to connect with their peers. Reducing negativity about technology will help encourage positive dialogue between parents and their teenage children on technology use.

Where parents have a positive and open dialogue with their teenage children they can monitor how they are using social technologies, helping them to utilise technology in ways that promote and maintain positive relationships with their peers, thus, enhancing the ability for technology to be used as a solution for loneliness.

Dr Rebecca Nowland
Research Fellow, University of Central Lancashire