Childhood Loneliness Can Have Long-Term Mental Health Implications

A young white child looks sad while lying in a chair covered in a blanket.

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Key Takeaways

  • Children and adolescents were isolated for weeks and even months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this will likely impact their mental health both in the short and long term, according to a new systematic review.
  • Experts say the results show that kids might struggle with the mental health impacts of the pandemic for months or years to come, but parents, guardians, school staff, and mental health professionals can all help.

Kids who were stuck at home, or away from school, for weeks or months during the pandemic could face mental health impacts, both now and in the future, according to a new review of existing evidence about childhood loneliness.

The rapid systematic review of 83 articles, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that loneliness is associated with depression and anxiety in children, and those who feel lonely for longer periods of time might be more affected.

"There is evidence that loneliness is associated with later mental health outcomes, up to nine years later," says Maria Loades, doctor of clinical psychology, a co-author of the review and a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Bath. "Loneliness likely has impacts on self-esteem, self-confidence, and well-being too."

The Review's Findings

Based on existing evidence, researchers found that children and adolescents are more likely to experience mental health symptoms "during and after enforced isolation ends." Those symptoms could also increase if enforced isolation continues, it says.

"We know that during the pandemic, children and young people have had limited opportunities to see their peers particularly," Loades says. "The evidence we collated suggests that those who have experienced prolonged loneliness during lockdown may be more affected by mental health problems like anxiety and depression, both in the short term and the longer term."

The review also listed "duration of quarantine, infection fears, boredom, frustration, lack of necessary supplies, lack of information, financial loss, and stigma" as factors that "appear to increase the risk of negative psychological outcomes." School closures, which could lead to isolation, could also increase risk of anxiety and depression.

What This Means for Caregivers and Teachers 

Parents, guardians, and school staff should take away two key points from the review, according to Anthony Puliafico, PhD, an associate professor of medical psychology (in psychiatry) at Columbia University Medical Center who is unaffiliated with the review.

First, that social connection is important for children's development, and children should regularly socialize in safe ways during the pandemic.

Second, "We need to balance measures to minimize COVID-19 spread with strategies to support our children’s socioemotional health," Puliafico says. "It is not necessarily essential that all children and adolescents are attending school in person, and in fact it may not be safe for children to attend school at times during this coming year. However, for children not physically attending school, it is important to build and maintain other meaningful social opportunities."

Anthony C. Puliafico, PhD

We need to balance measures to minimize COVID-19 spread with strategies to support our children’s socioemotional health.

— Anthony C. Puliafico, PhD

He suggests helping children socialize via online group chats, video calls, or social media. "Given the limited options for in-person socializing, it may be important for parents to be more flexible about the time their children spend in these online activities," Puliafico says.

Still, parents should keep an eye on kids' online activities to ensure they're using them in a positive way that will maintain social connections. "For instance, passively observing others' social media posts may increase feelings of loneliness in a teenager," he says.

What to Do If Your Child Is Struggling

One of the first things parents or guardians can do if their child is feeling lonely or experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety is to talk to them. Puliafico recommends checking in with them regularly about how they're feeling and asking them what could help them to feel less lonely.

"Ensure that your children have some COVID-safe social outlets, either at school or outside of school," he says. "Communicate with your child’s school if you are concerned that he is feeling socially isolated, even if your child is not physically attending school."

Kids might also benefit from talking to a therapist. "Approaches like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) help young people to develop ways to manage their thoughts and to try out different ways of doing things to help them to feel better and enable them to do the things in life that they want to do," Loades says, adding that there's also tentative evidence that taking up a new hobby could help young people feel less lonely.

Caregivers, teachers, and mental health professionals should also stay flexible when it comes to supporting children during the pandemic, Puliafico says. "Helping our children to build and maintain connection with their peers is essential during this time," he says.

"These connections may look different than they have in the past, and in particular they may involve more online socializing, but they remain vital to our children’s healthy development and well-being."

What This Means For You

Whether you're a parent, aunt, childcare professional, or teacher, you likely know a child who has been affected by the isolation caused by the pandemic. You can reach out to ask them how they're doing or check in via video chat.

If you're a parent, you can ask them if there's anything you can do to help them feel more connected to their friends. And don't just check in once, because the pandemic isn't over. Talk to them over dinner, or have a one-on-one once a week.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
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  1. Loades ME, Chatburn E, Higson-Sweeney N, et al. Rapid systematic review: the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of COVID-19. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2020;59(11):1218-1239.e3. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009

By Jo Yurcaba
 Jo Yurcaba is a freelance writer specializing in mental health.