Adolescents that are “chronically lonely” can react to social inclusion as badly as social exclusion, new research from Belgium has revealed.
The collaborative study, carried out by researchers from Duke University, Belgium’s University of Leuven and Ghent University, looked into whether emotions triggered when adolescents are included and excluded by their peers changed between chronically lonely adolescents and adolescents with busier social lives.
The researchers collected the individual levels of loneliness of 730 participants aged between 15 and 18, using four annual questionnaires.
After analysing the results, they found that most adolescents did not experience high levels of loneliness, and if they did it was not long-lasting.
But they did find a small sub-group of adolescents that felt lonely year after year, who according to the researchers, may respond to social situations in ways that increase their loneliness rather than reducing it.
The study’s first author, Janne Vanhalst of University of Leuven, said: “Chronically lonely adolescents seem to interpret social inclusion and exclusion situations in a self-defeating way.
“These self-defeating interpretations not only make them feel worse after being socially excluded, but also less enthusiastic when being socially included.
“Therefore, loneliness interventions should try to change the ways adolescents think and feel about social situations, to break the vicious cycle of chronic loneliness.”
As part of the study, participants were presented with a range of short scenarios involving social inclusion and social exclusion.
The researchers then asked participants to rate what they would think, and how they would feel, if they were put in those situations.
They found that chronically lonely adolescents reported feeling heightened negative emotions, such as sadness, disappointment and insecurity, in response to social exclusion.
It also revealed that adolescents are more likely to attribute social exclusion to their own personal characteristics, and tend to blame the exclusion on their own personal failure.
In situations involving social inclusion, chronically lonely adolescents were less enthusiastic than adolescents in other loneliness groups, and they were more likely to attribute social inclusion to coincidence.
Speaking about the findings, co-author and research scientist Molly Weeks said: “These findings show us that adolescents with a history of chronic loneliness seem to be responding to social situations in ways that may perpetuate their loneliness.
“Future research should investigate when and how temporary loneliness becomes chronic loneliness and figure out how we can intervene to prevent that from happening.”
The study was published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.