When It Comes to Friends, Sometimes Less Is More

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Image
A teenage boy and girl using smartphones to send emails.

You’ve got the smartphone, the pad, at least a few social media accounts, and so on. Using personal tech and socializing online is as natural to you as breathing.

But, as you’ve probably heard, teens haven’t always had these options. Before this tech explosion in the ‘90s people interacted in person, on the phone, or with a letter (or telegram—look that one up sometime).     

So now that the main ways of connecting seem to be more about texting than talking, some adults tend to think that teenagers today are lonelier and more isolated than they were when they were your age. They may think that…but at least one study says, “Not so much.”

Not so lonely

Researchers in Australia used data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, a study NIDA funds every year to ask teens just like you about their lives. We’ve written before about what the survey has revealed about teens’ use of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs, but the survey actually covers a lot more than that.

The researchers looked at teens’ responses to the MTF survey between 1991 and 2012. As the years went by, American high school students reported having fewer friends—but they were OK with that. In fact, they were less lonely than the kids in previous years.

How can you be less lonely with fewer friends? The lead researcher, David Clark, said he thought that modernization may explain what’s going on. Teens now (like everybody else) have more and different ways to interact with others than ever before.

Well-connected

In other words, even if socializing online is in some ways making teens more isolated than previous generations—and we don’t know that it is—it’s giving them options for connecting to others that earlier generations didn’t have.

Of course, don’t take this too far—you can still be too attached to your smartphone.  But overall, technology is helping teens stay in touch with their real-life (or online) friends.  It’s also easier online for people to find other people like themselves (when the home crowd doesn’t offer that option).

In another study, researchers found that teens who are lonely or nervous about talking to people tend to communicate more online, where they may be more comfortable interacting.

The Web also has good resources for teens who are really lonely or depressed, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which has a way to chat with counselors online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org, in addition to its phone number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

So if you hear somebody say teenagers today don’t have as meaningful relationships, you can offer an evidence-based alternative view.  Besides, the internet can’t be all bad—without it we wouldn’t have cat videos.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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