Does tech make teen loneliness worse or better?

It seems that when it comes to teenagers, their perception of the impact of tech is very different to that of their parents.

Nearly half of British teens believe the internet makes them feel less lonely, but only a quarter of their parents agree, according to TalkTalk’s Teenage Loneliness and Technology Report.

It seems there is a big generational gap in households over the role tech plays in teenage mental wellbeing.

The study interviewed more than 2,000 young people aged 13-16 years old and more than 2,000 parents of the same teenagers. Here’s what they told researchers:

Half (51%) of 13-16 year olds said that during times when they have felt lonely, technology has also provided a solution to their loneliness: they have made new friends, received support and advice, and received positive comments while being online. However, worryingly of the teenagers that did feel lonely, just under a third (31%) admitted to not having discussed their feelings with anyone.

However, the research revealed a worrying picture of parental loneliness, with 28% of parents admitting they felt lonely often, always or some of the time, compared to only 21% of young people.

This could have an impact in both their perceptions and their communication with their offsping about mental health.

 

What makes teenagers feel lonely?

Notably, the top four causes of youth loneliness, according to both parents and teenagers, were issues relating to money, trust, friendships and shyness. This suggests that traditional economic and social issues are the main factors driving loneliness among teenagers, while digital technology-led issues linked to the online world contribute less.

 

The top four main contributors to teenage loneliness according to parents and teenagers:

  Main contributors to teenage loneliness  Teenagers Parents
1 Not being able to take part in friends’ activities because they are too expensive 32% 31%
2 Not being able to talk openly with others 28% 22%
3 Not having friends that can be relied on 25% 25%
4 Prohibitive cost of gadgets and fashion 21% 18%

 

Tristia Harrison CEO of TalkTalk said of the study:

“I am heartened to see that technology can, in many cases, help tackle feelings of loneliness in young people. It is also clear  that open and regular communication between parents and their teenagers on this topic cannot be underestimated.

“As CEO and a parent of teenage children, I’m proud that TalkTalk has a long history of leading efforts to ensure the internet is a safer place. But as the technology constantly evolves, it presents new issues and challenges. As an industry, we must continually reassess what more we can be doing to understand and mitigate online risks, so our young people have the best possible experience online.”

Parents don’t know how to engage with their teenagers’ tech experience

The report reveals that most parents (70%) worry about their teenagers’ use of technology. Yet over a third (37%) felt ill-equipped or are simply unsure how to help manage or navigate their teenagers’ tech and online use safely. This lack of confidence is leading to inaction among parents towards their teenagers’ safe use of the internet.

Surprisingly, despite parents’ concerns, the report found that:

  • 41% have never discussed feelings of loneliness with their teenage children
  • Over two thirds of parents (70%) do not use parent protection controls and software
  • 76% do not approve apps and websites before their children use them
  • 65% do not limit the hours their teenager spends using technology and social media

CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting said:

“The research reiterates how teenagers don’t differentiate between their online and offline world and they turn to devices to help them feel connected and supported. 

“By being in tune with their child’s digital life, parents can feel empowered to help them take advantage of all the opportunities that the online world has to offer. 

 “Having regular, open and honest conversations and getting to grips with the tech they’re using, is the easiest way for parents to create an effective and positive online environment for their children.”

 Tech for good or bad?

Our report found that a third (36%) of teenagers said that they have experienced a time when technology has had a negative effect on them. Loneliness caused by not having many friends on social media was cited by 12% of teenagers.

The study however found that parents recognised the positive social impact technology and the internet could have on their teenage children. Two thirds (67%) of parents said that their teenage child had told them about positive experiences using technology – a figure that jumps to over three quarters (77%) according to young people themselves.

In addition, a third (33%) of parents said their teenagers’ use of technology and the internet had improved social skills, 27% believed it helped teenage children make friends and a further 19% said it helped their teenager overcome anxieties when talking to friends.

Dr Rebecca Nowland, Research Fellow University of Central Lancashire Faculty of Health and Well-Being, said:

“The impacts of technology on loneliness may not be the same for each generation. New social technologies are important for young people to connect with their friends. The survey findings show that teenagers see social digital technologies as a way to reduce loneliness. Although, parents are able to see the positives of young people’s technology use, there is still a digital divide between the generations. Worries for parents centre on not feeling equipped or having sufficient knowledge to keep youth safe online.”

Call to action: TalkTalk is working on the following initiatives to help parents and young people harness the benefits of technology.

  • TalkTalk is working with Internet Matters to help guide parents keep their children safe online
  • Our parental filter, HomeSafe, allows parents to control what content their children access. The packaging on TalkTalk’s new routers’ (the Wi-Fi Hub) signposts to Internet Matters, reminding parents that support is available on online safety
  • TalkTalk has signed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Employer Pledge on loneliness which is a statement of action to prevent loneliness at work for employees

The full Teenage Loneliness and Technology Report can be found here.