Why lonely teens stay lonely

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For many of us, being a teenager meant learning about loneliness. When I wasn't busy sizing up my social status in high school, I was angstily listening to Sum 41 or Taking Back Sunday (that's what kids listen to these days, right?), weeping over the fact that no one would ever possibly understand me.


Normally, feeling lonely can be cured, at least temporarily, with an invite to a party or lunch or local chapter of Club Spongebob (complete with access to the Magic Conch). But for teens with chronic loneliness, social invitations can actually make them feel worse, according to a new study from researchers at Duke University and Belgium's University of Leuven and Ghent University. These teens basically assume that, when they get invited to something, there's a catch—and when they get left out, well, they have only themselves to blame.

It's kind of like—imagine you're invited to a party with a bunch of cool people, but you can’t believe you're cool enough for them, so you think, "Wait, are they inviting me because they feel bad for me? Maybe they accidentally added me to the guest list." Or when you’re not invited to a party and think, "Yeah, that makes sense, I am awkward as hell and everyone knows that I never know what to do with my hands. Probably a good idea not to invite me." Like that.

But first, what is chronic loneliness? Usually, loneliness is fleeting and circumstantial. We're sitting around feeling all alone in this world—and then a friend calls, we go out and have a fun time, and the blues go away. (Or in my case, I turn on Netflix.) For those with chronic loneliness, however, which describes between 3 and 22% of the population, loneliness doesn’t evaporate when socializing. Chronic loneliness persists over an extended period of time.

In the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers were curious whether chronically lonely teens might react differently to social invitations than their peers. And so, they enlisted 730 Belgian adolescents between grades 9 and 12 to respond to 10 hypothetical situations regarding both social inclusion ("Some classmates are going to a new lunch place and asked you if you want to join them") and social exclusion ("You saw on Facebook that your classmates were tagged in photos at a party you weren’t invited to"). After each question, the students answered open-ended questions about their emotional reactions.

The researchers found that the majority of students surveyed did not experience long-term high feelings of loneliness—only 3% were chronically lonely. But the chronically lonely teens responded very differently to the hypothetical situations compared to, well, everyone else.  These teens felt more anxious when included—and more sad, disappointed, angry, jealous, offended, and anxious when excluded. However, they also felt more relieved when excluded.

The researchers also asked the students to attribute their social inclusion or exclusion in a series of hypothetical scenarios to themselves, their peers, or pure coincidence.


Most students tended to attribute social inclusion and exclusion in a self-serving way.  For example, when included, they attributed it to “self-stable” confidence in themselves ("I am a pretty nice person to hang out with"). But those with chronic loneliness took a far more self-defeating approach, attributing their inclusion to their peers ("They must have been in a good mood"). And while most students tended to attribute social exclusion to coincidence, chronically lonely teens blamed themselves.

Chronically lonely adolescents are at a higher risk for developing depression and society anxiety, so intervention can be crucial. “The need to belong is a universal and fundamental human need, suggesting that everyone has a deep-rooted desire to be connected to other people,” Janne Vanhalst, the lead researcher of the study, told me over email. “Loneliness can be viewed as a frustration of this need to belong, as loneliness is a sad or aching sense of isolation resulting from a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual social relationships."


The researchers believe their findings could help caring professionals treat these individuals. “Based on our results, helping chronically lonely adolescents view social situations differently could be one way to reduce their feelings of loneliness,” Vanhalst said. “For example, by helping them to take credit for some of their social successes and not to blame themselves for every social difficulty they encounter.”

As someone who totally understands what it’s like to somehow blame oneself for pretty much every social interaction (ugh, why do I hug people I'm loosely acquainted with?!)—sign me up.