Why Is Social Media Making Adolescents Feel Lonelier?

Teenagers may think that social media will cure their feelings of loneliness or quench their desire to be included, but it’s having the opposite effect. Researchers, as well as experienced parents, are finding that social media spurs negative emotions at a greater rate than healthy feelings, especially among teens ranging in ages from 14 to 17. Since teens have strong desires to fit in with their peers and be with them as much as possible, it seems natural to believe that social media would quench that thirst. But researchers are finding that the more adolescents are engaged in social media, the more likely they are to experience loneliness, feelings of depression, and anxiety3

Fear of missing out (FoMo) and loneliness is higher among adolescents who check their social media accounts most often. Researchers found that the more teens checked their social media accounts and the more accounts they had, the more teens reported feelings of loneliness and depression1. There are two plausible explanations about why this occurs: 1) Students see positive things about their peers and they don’t think their lives measure up. 2) Teens see favorable projections of their friends, and they are afraid that they will not be as well liked. As a result of both of these factors, teens begin to experience depressing feelings associated with FoMo.

Understanding the link between social media use and depressive feelings offers some insight about why adolescents spend extreme amounts of time on social media when they are allowed. The effect has more in common with drinking alcohol than water: it becomes addictive rather than quenching. It begins with a desire to mingle socially, the same reason most adults enter the world of social media. They want to stay in touch with their friends and share their life with others. But as their social media exposure increases, their FoMo increases, which pinpoints a shift in why their cravings for social media increases. Adolescents even experience withdrawal symptoms if they don’t have enough access. As their motivation turns negative – to alleviate their FoMo, loneliness, and anxiety – they no longer experience pure enjoyment. Instead, teens begin to habitually check their accounts in order to cure these negative emotions. 

Parents are becoming increasingly concerned about how much time their children are spending in front of screens and what may result from spending so much time online. The Pew Research Center found that a large majority of parents are concerned, but the majority of parents also trust their ability to monitor their children’s online activity. Of the parents surveyed, 9 of 10 believe they can properly teach their teen healthy online behavior, and almost 9 of 10 parents believe they can properly monitor their children2. It’s feasible that most parents know what constitutes good or bad content, how to install a filter, or how to check the browser history. However, do most parents understand the emotional implications? 

Parents would be wise to realize that content is not the only thing that needs to be supervised when it comes to social media exposure. The amount of time engaged in social media as well as the emotional implications have to be considered if parents want their children to enjoy an emotionally healthy childhood. In most cases, the safest option is for adolescents to stay off of social media, especially the younger they are. It’s healthier for them to build face-to-face relationships and enjoy being with their friends in person. Your children may feel like they are missing out by not being on social media, but weigh those feelings with other factors that should be considered:

  • Is it really possible to be included in everything? Will social media be feeding your child the unrealistic idea that it’s always possible to be included?
  • Is it really possible for your child to never feel left out? Will social media do more to feed your child information igniting jealousy and loneliness, rather than contentment?
  • Is your child really going to build healthy relationships through social media? Will social media meet your child’s natural need for friendship or just make them think they have poor friendships?

Parents need to be aware that adolescents do not interpret information on social media like an adult, and in many respects, teens cannot engage without it being emotionally detrimental. Given that FoMo and loneliness increase, not decrease, with adolescent social media use, it’s evident that children process information differently than adults. While other detrimental factors need to be considered as well, such as sleep-deprivation, depression, body image, and self-esteem (these will be discussed in a forthcoming blog post), FoMo and loneliness are two good reasons for parents to either seriously limit social media, or just play it safe by banning it altogether.


Barry, C.T., et al. (2017). Adolescent social media use and mental health from adolescent and parent perspectives. Journal of Adolescence, 61, 1-11. 

Anderson, Monica. “How parents feel about and manage their teens online behavior and screen time.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/22/how-parents-feel-about-and-manage-their-teens-online-behavior-and-screen-time/

3Woods, H.C., Scott, H. (2016) #Sleepyteens: Social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Journal of Adolescence, 51, 41-49.