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Confronting an epidemic of loneliness among the young

Vivek Murthy, U.S. surgeon generalVivek Murthy, U.S. surgeon general, sees mental-health issues. / AP photo

This news feature by Kara Baskin, a Boston Globe correspondent who lives in Arlington and writes the Parents Unfiltered column, was published March 15, under the headline “Kids are overscheduled. They’re also lonely. We’ve got to stop pressuring them before it’s too late.” It is republished in full with the author's permission.

Loneliness: It’s the scourge of our time. In 2023, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on loneliness and isolation, calling it an epidemic: Lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.

Young people are especially lonely. For this age group, time spent in person with friends has dwindled by nearly 70 percent over almost two decades, from roughly 150 minutes per day in 2003 to 40 minutes per day in 2020.

But what can we actually do about it? How do we disentangle our kids from their earbuds? My 13-year-old spends his free time (after too much homework, and basketball) gaming with friends — remotely. Last weekend, when I suggested that those friends actually come over, he looked at me like I was nuts.

Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, speaks at Hub Week in 2018. / Globe photo by Lane TurnerDr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, speaks at Hub Week in 2018. / Globe photo by Lane Turner“I’m cozy at home,” he said.

At 13, ready to bolt

When I was 13 in the early '90s, being “cozy at home” was a fate worse than braces. I was waiting for the landline to ring, ready to bolt.

Does this sound familiar? Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, wrote a guide in response to the epidemic declaration: “Ways to Help Your Lonely Teen: A Guide to Implementing the U.S. Surgeon General’s 7 Recommendations for Parents and Caregivers.” It comes out on March 28.

Beresin says that this generation is devastatingly busy yet isolated, relying on digital media as a form of connection that fits into their overscheduled days. They are alone in a crowded schedule, and it’s dangerous. We talked ahead of the book launch, and it was a refreshing conversation — and also a warning.

We know loneliness is bad. What aren’t we hearing enough about?

The loneliest generation are the 11- to 24-year-olds. Which is surprising: Young people that age, you would think, are the least likely to be lonely.

Everybody blames social media. I think the most important reason kids are lonely is because they are incredibly overscheduled.

They have to take AP courses, they have to play the violin, they have three sports, they have to do community service, they have to do an internship. … They do not have a single day or moment free. And one of the reasons they’re using social media is because it’s a consequence, in some ways, of being overscheduled. How can they connect when they have no time?

For millennials, weekends were times where you could actually hang out with friends, take a walk, go for a bike ride, look for a pickup basketball game. Young people today are so overbooked and overscheduled that it not only creates loneliness, but it fosters, in my view, skyrocketing trends in depression, anxiety, and stress. Young people, particularly middle school and high school kids, need time to just hang out, to not have to do tasks unless they’re doing group projects.

No parent I know — and this is definitely a middle- and upper-middle-class problem — wants to be the first one to pull the plug, because they think that their kid is going to lose an edge. Getting into college is a bloodbath. They need every advantage they can get. What would you say to a parent who has an overscheduled kid but doesn’t see a way out?

I’d say: You’ve got to set your priorities. We all need work, love, and play. And if all we’ve got is pressure to work, we don’t have enough time to build in-person, face-to-face relationships. Not much has changed since “The Breakfast Club” in 1985. Kids need to learn how to navigate those waters. If they’re booked 24/7 in terms of being pressured to “achieve,” and they don’t have time to deal with other young people and to settle differences and to navigate those waters, they’re going to be behind the eight ball. They’re not going to be prepared for life.

If they’re missing out on healthy interpersonal relationships, on social emotional learning, on being able to have fun, they’re not going to turn out to be mentally healthy human beings. You’re jeopardizing their mental health by focusing on the standards that you think are going to get them into Harvard.

Frankly, even the young people who go to the Ivies aren’t necessarily the healthiest, the most balanced and stable, or the most productive, if they don’t have social emotional skills. That’s the reason why people lose their jobs when they’re adults. It’s not because they don’t have knowledge or skills. It’s because they don’t get along with people. They don’t know how to deal with conflict. Just getting into a great college doesn’t ensure the health and well-being of your young person.

What else can parents do to encourage social relationships? It’s hard once you get into the teen years. Kids don’t want to listen to you anyway. How do you support them?

You don’t want to have family meetings. You don’t want to have sit-down talks, because you’re only going to get eye-rolls. They get enough lecturing in school. You want to have your own agenda, and you want your agenda to fill in between the cracks.

Three things that I propose in the book are assess, regulate, and promote. Start assessing from a very young age: How do your kids spend their time online and offline? What do they like to do? Really make an inventory.

Most parents don’t know what apps they’re using. Most parents don’t go to to know what the content is. Most are shocked to find out what certain video games are. Parents need to be more literate to be able to assess what they’re using.

Assessment is not spying. There are many parents that I’ve consulted to who look at their [kids’] phones. It’s the worst thing you can possibly do. Censorship and prohibition never, ever work. In fact, they backfire. Do not be a spy. You want to engender trust, and you want to engender transparency. You want to regulate. Have conversations with them: Do you really think about what you’re sending out on TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat?

How does this tie into loneliness?

We’re all digital hostages, and Gen Zs are digital natives. They’re born, raised, and immersed in it. You can’t minimize the fact that they’re both wedded to it, but they also are traumatized by it. Having conversations that really get into the use and misuse of digital media is extremely important. Few parents do this.

How it pertains to loneliness is that the more the kids are overscheduled, the less they can do face-to-face time, and the more they’re using digital media as a substitute for real eye-to-eye contact. You cannot simulate being in a room with another human being, much as we think we can use FaceTime as a substitute.

In lieu of having a family meeting, how do we fill in those cracks with our agenda?

Have frequent ongoing conversations that demonstrate respect, tolerance, listening, empathy, validation, and understanding where they’re coming from, and they really know that you’re taking it in. You can have bits and pieces when you’re driving them to school, cooking, doing chores: “What’s so cool about TikTok? Can you tell me something that you’ve posted recently?”

Now, most kids don’t want to tell their parents what they’ve posted. But if this becomes part of the fabric of their conversation: “How do you feel about what’s going on politically? How do you feel about what you’re seeing on the news?,” it’s bringing them into the conversation. It’s not just about digital media; it’s about the world we’re living in now, how insecure it is, how scary it is, and how lonely it makes you feel.

The process of identity formation and separation is in itself lonely. That’s another thing that has not been addressed: Loneliness for the teenager is a part of normal development.

An image of a young girl looking at someone's social media feed. / Globe Adobe illustrationAn image of a young girl looking at a social media feed. / Globe Adobe illustrationOf social media, Dr. Gene Beresin said, "Most parents don’t know what apps they’re using. Most parents don’t go to to know what the content is. . . . Parents need to be more literate to be able to assess what they’re using."

What’s the tipping point between loneliness and dangerous loneliness?

When it affects your academics, sleep, diet. When [your child] starts using substances. Over 50 percent of kids who use substances use it to feel better, but they also use it to quell anxiety and depression. Many of these kids will drink together, but some of them will drink alone.

When they don’t want to go to school, because it’s too painful — or when they succumb to peer pressure because they want to be included, they’re combating loneliness. Other kids are saying, “Come on, let’s get in the car and drive,” when the kids just smoked pot or had too much to drink. They get in the car because they don’t want to be left out or they don’t want to be alone. Or they get involved in relationships that are controlling with a partner that they feel that they can’t break away from, [because] if they did break away, they would lose a cohort of friends. They stay in a destructive relationship in order to combat loneliness.

How does a parent intervene?

Listen, empathize, validate their experience, be non-judgmental. [A kid] should feel that every experience is not going to be criticized, judged, or condemned, even if you hear something horrifying: “I did smoke a little pot; I did try some vodka when I went to the football game.”

The way to deal with it is to say, “Tell me more about that. I’d like to hear about it.” [Then] a teenager feels that what they did, whether it’s by impulse, or to combat loneliness, or to not be excluded by friends, won’t be judged or condemned, or [they] won’t be called names or get punished. They’re just going to be able to tell their story, in a coherent way. Then, the parent might say, “You know, I did some pretty stupid things when I was your age.” And then the teenager, you bet, is going to say: “Like what?”

Our job as parents is to assess, regulate, and promote. The main vehicle for that is by frequent, non-judgmental, empathic, validating conversations.

If you could give this interview a headline, what would it be?

Loneliness is a combination of biology, psychology, and the environment in which we’re living. It is extraordinarily destructive for us — pack animals, human beings, as a species. If we don’t use the means to curtail this thing, it’s only going to escalate, and that’s going to be very destructive for our own mental, physical, and societal health.

This news feature by Kara Baskin (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., which includes opinion, was republished with permission on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

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