They spend most of the week in classrooms surrounded by 30+ other children and when they’re not at school, they’re at home in the company of family or glued to their phones, sending snaps to their friends. But despite what might seem like an overwhelming amount of human contact, more teenage girls are struggling with loneliness and isolation than ever before.
Childline delivered 4,636 counselling sessions responding specifically to loneliness in 2017-2018, a 14% increase on the previous year, with 80% of these sessions given to girls. The feeling that nobody understands you and that you must face the world alone will be a familiar memory to most, but the playing field has changed dramatically for teens since the advent of social media – which, lest we forget, was designed to encourage social interaction. And in its most virtuous form, it does, giving one teenage girl who feels lonely the opportunity to pick up her phone and find another teenage girl who feels equally lonely, with the hope they become best friends and live happily ever after. But as most teenage girls will tell you, that’s not really how it is.
"I can talk to people all around the world and never leave my sofa," Lola Ray, 18, from Brighton tells me over the phone. "And that’s great, that works for some people, but it also means that as a generation, we’ve lost the ability to interact face to face." Lola is part of a collective of 17 and 18-year-olds (called the Brighton 5) who have made it their mission to help younger girls navigate the isolation and social anxiety that comes with social media. As Lola explains, social media often has the opposite effect to the one intended – not just enabling, but normalising antisocial behaviour. "It’s a safety net," she tells me, "teenagers are choosing to stay inside, in their safe zone, on their phones, instead of going out and physically spending time with people. Social interactions when you’re young are really scary because you don’t know where you fit in and you’re still learning how to do everything, so instead of going through the awkwardness of that, teenagers are using their phones to avoid it altogether."
Joy, 15, from London expresses similar concerns to Lola about the long-term effect on young people’s social skills. "I do feel that social media is taking away young people’s social skills because they are so used to connecting from behind a screen, they don’t know how to cope in social situations in the real world." While Joy has lots of friends on social media, many of whom she interacts with in the real world too, she understands why many girls her age feel lonely: "Even if they have tons of friends on social media, realistically, they don’t actually feel like they can be themselves in front of them or trust them in their time of need." Despite frequent messages, there’s a lot of room for miscommunication, she observes, which contributes to feeling lonely. "It’s easy to hide your emotions on social media with the help of things like emoji. If you’re face to face, you actually have to have a genuine talk; there’s no phone to hide behind."
This applies to the generations above them too. Millennials who grew up with MSN and text prefer to do business over email than on the phone, and feel more comfortable asking each other out through a screen than face to face. As technology continues to advance, we could see a loss in social skills with every generation. Joy’s friend, Giulia, also 15, thinks people their age are "considerably lonelier" than previous generations, and similarly points to the fact that you can hide your true feelings behind your phone as a key reason for this shift. "We’ve grown up with the mentality that we can hide behind a screen and we’ve lost the ability to fully socialise in real life. Most people tend to prefer talking on social media, which means less friends meet up, which causes more people to feel lonely. We constantly feel surrounded by people because of the way social media works but in fact, no one’s there."
Wise beyond their years, Joy and Giulia agree that social media has contributed to loneliness in their age group but despite recognising the overall negative effect on their generation, compared to other teens, they actually seem to use it in a pretty healthy way. Joy meets up with about 50% of the friends she has on social media and uses it to strengthen her pre-existing relationships. Giulia prefers to talk to her friends in person: "I prefer to call someone or FaceTime because I am the worst texter. The friends I have the strongest bonds with, I meet regularly."
The real problems arise with the girls for whom interaction on social media doesn’t match up to real life. Daniela*, 17, says she has "no friends" and gets bullied at school. She says she feels desperately lonely and feels envious when she sees girls from her school posting pictures together on Instagram. She chats to girls and boys her age online but says she would never dare to meet them in real life because she projects a different persona online. "I pretend to be happy online, I post pretty pictures and write funny captions," she tells me over text. "I have views, I have likes, but I don’t have friends." Daniela remembers being happier at 13, when social media was less dominant. "Before social media, I was actually going out and having fun. Now I just sit at home and do my makeup in my room and take selfies as if I’m going out but I never do. Without social media, maybe I’d have a proper life and proper friends instead of a fake life and fake friends."
Research says it’s not all social media’s fault. The latest ONS study, titled "Children’s and young people’s experiences of loneliness: 2018", lists multiple factors in the rise of loneliness in teens, such as mental health problems and being bullied. While these things undoubtedly get amplified on social media, they still, unfortunately, exist without it. Feeling alone or like an outcast has long been considered part of the teenage condition, but social media presents 100 different ways for this to play out – and it’s all live, which can be much more affecting.
Dr Helen Sharpe, a lecturer in clinical psychology who works closely with schools developing classroom-based interventions for mental health problems in adolescence, says the role of social media in loneliness and mental health is an ongoing area of research and debate. "What seems clear at this stage is that how people use social media is more important to consider than simply whether they use it," she tells me. "Adolescence is a key period of transition, and one of the biggest changes we have to navigate at this time is the increasing importance of peers and friends in our social world. Social media and other technologies have fundamentally changed the way in which all of us (including young people) interact with each other."
We're still not sure what effect all this digital communication is having on us; whether we're evolving or seriously regressing. What is reassuring is that teenage girls know more about their own situation than anyone else, and that girls like Lola are actively taking responsibility for the next generation. "It’s all so new, no one really knows how to do it properly," she says, "but I believe it’s our duty as older girls to take what we’ve learned growing up on social media so far and use it to help younger girls who are struggling."
*Not her real name