It is natural for teenagers at some point during adolescence to feel as though they don’t fit in or to feel the need to remove themselves from the situation. At some point, we ALL could use a little alone time! But for some teens too much alone time can be detrimental to their physical and mental health.
For a teenager though, sometimes feelings of being different or unlikable may infringe on their sense of self-worth forcing them into isolation. It becomes a vicious cycle; they don’t feel that they fit in so they separate themselves which makes them feel isolated and alone.
Social isolation is a complete lack of contact between a teenager and society. Loneliness is a feeling, a temporary state in which a teen finds it difficult to connect with people by their own choice or circumstances. Teens may feel lonely when they have to stay home on a Saturday night or are home sick from school one day.
On the other hand, social isolation is the absence of contact which then leads to loneliness and a host of other issues such as fear and negative perception of self. For some teens, mental health issues may prohibit them from participating in everyday activities, causing them to be isolated and therefore, lonely. Unfortunately, both of these things can wreak havoc on the developing mind of a teenager especially one who may already be experiencing mental health issues.
Humans are social creatures by nature. Take away a teen’s phone for a night and you would think that you have just cut off all contact with the world. What happens though if you are completely alone? No matter the reason that people may be socially isolated, the lack of human contact can have a dramatic impact on the brain. Scientists have linked the part of the human brain that controls empathy, language, and social cognition with being directly proportional to how social we are. We are built to be social!
So, when the brain is not engaged socially, it does not function at its best.
From the time we are born, we are surrounded by others. Babies are constantly coddled by their parents; toddlers learn best when they mimic others; as adults, we go to dinners and parties to be around others. However, as we age, these social interactions become fewer and farther between. Consider the social isolation and loneliness that occurs with older people as their loved ones and friends begin to die and the younger generations are too busy to be bothered.
Feelings of being unworthy, unloved, and desperately alone creep into the mind, in fact, driving a person insane. It is seen time and time again when these older generations remain in their homes, having no contact with others. Although they may have once been strong of mind and body, social isolation takes their mental state to a point of no return.
There is no other extreme case of social isolation that is more profound than in the movie Castaway. Chuck Noland finds himself as the sole survivor of a plane crash washed up on the shores of an island in the Pacific Ocean. Throughout the many years of complete solitude, Noland takes refuge in knowing that his friend Wilson (the volleyball) will always be there for him. Had he gone crazy? Did social isolation steal his sense of logic and rationale? While this is extreme, social isolation can, in fact, encourage a person to hallucinate and even speak to inanimate objects as if they are real.
You may be thinking, how does this relate to my teen? Although it is obvious that your teen is not stranded on a desert island alone, their immature, vulnerable brain may make them feel this way.
There are many reasons why a teen may voluntarily or involuntarily separate themselves from society and if this happens occasionally, they may simply need to recharge. However, if this becomes a habit, this could be a sign of social isolation. It may also be an indication that some other issue may be threatening their mental health such as depression and social anxiety.
Reasons for social isolation
- Teens may be afraid to share with others what they are thinking or feeling. Because mental illness does carry with it so many stigmas, they may be more concerned about being called weird or crazy than dealing with the real issue. They seclude themselves to deal with these feelings on their own.
- Teens feel that they do not fit in because of the way they dress, act, or look.
- Bullying, unfortunately, makes teens feel that they do not belong or unworthy, pushing them to isolate themselves to avoid the harsh words and actions of others.
- Moodiness, normal teenage behavior, can force a teen into isolation as a self—imposed timeout. They may simply need time away from others to process life and think.
- Depression forces a teen to lose interest in most activities. They prefer to retreat to their room for solace and comfort. Unfortunately, this usually exacerbates the feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem.
- Social interaction may be difficult because of shyness.
- Social anxiety induces intense feelings of fear in any type of social interaction forcing a teen into solitude.
- Fear of social rejection could be a driving force to keep teens away from social settings.
- Isolation may be a symptom of avoidant personality disorder.
No matter the reason for social isolation, do not underestimate how it can impact a teen’s mental and physical health. Socialization is, in fact, critical for a teen’s growth and development into an adult and helps them to understand how to navigate the world. Without it, they may not learn the necessary skills to go out into the workforce, interacting with a diverse group of people, developing personal and business relationships.
- Teens thrive on and value the opinions of their friends to help them process the drama associated with their lives looking for reassurance and affirmation.
- Depression and social isolation go hand in hand. Say no more!
- Are chat rooms, video conferencing, and counting the “likes” all considered social interaction? How do teens learn to read body language and innuendos from the other side of a screen? While a teen may dive into video games head first to avoid interaction with live humans, this behavior may also label him as a loner or geek.
Which came first the chicken or the egg? Are teens pushed into social isolation because of mental health issues or does social isolation cause mental health issues? Unfortunately, just like the chicken and the egg question, there is no clear-cut answer to this one.
What is clear is that social isolation can be very damaging for a young person’s mind and body. Intense feelings of loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem, and other negative thoughts could lead a teen to self-harm or to have thoughts of suicide. The effects of social isolation are serious and should be taken as such. There are many other negative effects that chronic loneliness and isolation can have on a teen.
Physical and emotional effects of social isolation
- Risk of alcohol and substance abuse
- Restless sleep and insomnia
- A lack of personal hygiene
- Increase negative outlook
- Increased stress and anxiety
- Physical ailments like high blood pressure and headaches
- Excessive eating leading to eating disorders and/or obesity
- Lower self-esteem
- Increased risk of sickness/reduced immune system
- Emotional instability
- Distrust of others
While social isolation may be a temporary situation, it may have lasting effects on a teen’s mental state if not addressed. If you suspect that your teen is experiencing social isolation, you must contact their pediatrician for guidance as to how to proceed. The doctor will evaluate your teen and determine if treatment and guidance by mental health professionals if necessary. If needed, the trained professionals at Beachside Teen Treatment Center can help your teen to overcome the signs and symptoms of social isolation and any underlying issues.
The root causes and reasons for social isolation, whether voluntary or involuntarily, can best be identified and addressed by experienced mental health professionals at a facility like Beachside Teen Treatment Center. Reach out today to help your teen to overcome and get their life and social interaction back on track.
Strategies for Parents
- Make exercise a priority. Physical activity increases blood and oxygen supply to the brain and naturally induces feelings of happiness and joy. Although this may not resolve the reasons for social isolation, it can help to temporarily relieve some of the symptoms.
- Talk. Take the first step towards social interaction with the world and encourage your teen to engage in conversation with you. With open, honest communication, you can allow your teen to share with you their feelings and reasons for avoiding social interaction and connections.
- Screen time. It is debatable whether devices help or hinder social interaction. Try limiting the amount of screen time and encourage more family one-on-one time.
- Enjoy nature. Reduce stress, get some exercise, be in the moment. Although this will not resolve the issue of isolation itself, it can certainly help to increase a teen’s mood and mental state.
Is your teenager’s mental health taking a nose dive because of self-imposed isolation (or any other form of isolation)? The trained staff at Beachside is ready and willing to help your teen get back on track.