In East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes “all great and precious things are lonely.” Increasingly, our children fit that description. Loneliness among teens has reached troubling levels. For the decades encompassing the late 20th and early 21st centuries, teen mental health outcomes had been reliably stable or were even improving. No one was sure why, but the field of clinical psychology breathed a collective sigh of relief. To the deep dismay of psychologists and policymakers, that trend abruptly reversed in the early 2010s. Caution was urged, as many in the field believed the reversal was likely temporary and limited to a few Western countries. That optimism has been soundly squashed as study after study continues to document this downturn, and in some cases paint an even more dire situation than what was suggested by early reports. Recently released research by Jean Twenge, Jonathan Haidt, and colleagues in the Journal of Adolescence suggests that we may be entering a troubling era of sustained declines in happiness and wellbeing among teens. Even worse, these most recent findings come from dozens of countries around the globe, suggesting a spreading crisis of teen loneliness and poor mental health.
This most recent study is noteworthy for several reasons: First, the researchers examined loneliness in a preposterously large sample of over one million adolescents, making the results stable and credible. Second, they tracked loneliness over a very long time (18 years), demonstrating that this is no temporary blip. Third, they examined outcomes in 37 countries on five continents, showing a broad global trend. No matter how you slice the results, they paint a troubling picture: Loneliness was generally stable (with the bright spot being a significant drop in Asia) from 2000 to 2012 and then quickly reversed itself in all regions. By 2018, nearly twice as many adolescents reported high levels of loneliness than just half a decade earlier. When they drilled down to the country level, the results were no better, with 36 of 37 countries they studied showing double-digit increases in loneliness from 2012 to 2018, with only South Korea demonstrating a single digit (8.99 percent) increase.