New research recently published suggests that teens who are lonely communicate more online than teens who aren’t so lonely.
Perhaps this should be filed in the “No duh” section of research findings about online behavior, but it actually answers a long-standing question — Does the Internet make people more lonely, or do lonely people turn to the Internet for solace?
The answer, from this study anyway, appears to be the latter — lonely people communicate online significantly more than non-lonely people do.
The Australian researchers (Bonetti et al., 2010) arrived at this finding by gathering survey data from 626 children and teens (10 to 16 years old). The surveys assessed subjects’ frequency of communication online, as well as loneliness (via an abbreviated UCLA loneliness scale) and social anxiety (via an abbreviated Social Anxiety Scale for Adolescents).
What did the researchers find?
The results show that those children and adolescents who self-identified as lonely communicated online significantly more than those who self-reported being socially anxious. The former also indicated that they communicated online significantly more frequently about personal things, people in their everyday lives, intimate topics, and their present and past, in comparison to socially anxious and typically developing children and adolescents.
It appears that lonely children and adolescents value the Internet as a communicative “protected” environment in which they can better express their inner selves and find conversation more satisfying than they do offline. Their poor social skills are probably the reason for their preference for online communication, as the lonely young people indicated that they communicated online more frequently so they did not feel as shy, were able to talk more comfortably, and dared to say more.
In other words, lonely teens find the Internet to be a rich social environment where they feel safe to explore reaching out to others and socially connecting with them. Behaviors they find difficult to do in real life, face-to-face. This is a good thing, because the study showed that teens reported using the Internet to make new friends — something they would otherwise find impossible to do offline.
The researchers also found that the older the teen was, the higher the likelihood that they would communicate online, and did so more frequently than the younger teens and children in the study.
What do Teens Communicate About Online?
The study also found that “children most often visit chat rooms devoted to discussion of entertainment topics such as gaming, whereas adolescents most frequently communicate online about relationships and lifestyles.” That’s not surprising, but good information for parents to know — younger kids talk about their interests, while teens are talking more and more about relationship issues as they delve into their first serious relationship.
As the researchers noted, girls “reported communicating online more frequently than did boys about shopping, clothes and fashion, how they felt, things they have done that day, things that bothered them, parents or family, gossip/rumors, relationships, plans for social events, current events, secret or confidential things, music, other kids, and holidays.” Boys main areas of interest in communicating online was about videogames, online gaming, and sports.
Both boys and girls in the study reported that they mostly communicated online with friends of the same sex. Girls, however, often said they used online communications for helping to maintain existing relationships with friends, even if they lived far away.
Boys, on the other hand, more frequently indicated that they talked to people online whom they had never met — including other boys, girls, and adults.
The researchers concluded by saying, “Lonely children and adolescents deal online with the same developmental issues as they do in their “real” lives. The Internet seems to allow them to fulfill needs of social interactions, self-disclosure, and identity exploration.”
Indeed, I’d have to say that’s a spot-on analysis. The Internet provides an important opportunity that allows lonely teens and kids to reach out to others. In the past, I believe many of these kids would just deal with their loneliness in less social ways — by delving further into solitary schoolwork, activities or hobbies. The Internet appears to have opened a valuable doorway allowing lonely teens a place to feel a little bit less lonely, and a little bit more accepted.
Bonetti, L., Campbell, MA, & Gilmore, L. (2010). The Relationship of Loneliness and Social Anxiety with Children’s and Adolescents’ Online Communication. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. doi:10.1089/cyber.2009.0215.