Childhood Loneliness Linked to Stress and Problem Drinking in Young Adults

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There is increasing recognition of the role loneliness can play in poor mental health and substance abuse. The link between loneliness and alcohol consumption is not a new revelation, with studies into the causes and effects of alcohol consumption highlighting loneliness for several decades. Despite this, the prevalence of loneliness appears to be increasing, and as rates of those requiring treatment for an alcohol use disorder rises, and alcohol-related deaths in the UK remain the highest in Europe, it is clearly still to be properly addressed. 

Causes of Childhood Loneliness

There are several factors that can contribute to childhood loneliness including moving house or school, having a disability, cultural or language barriers, certain personality traits, and even social stigma and the presence of systemic oppression. In addition, factors such as childhood trauma, parenting style, and neglect can all affect a child’s ability to socialise and form healthy peer relationships. Causes of childhood loneliness are incredibly far-ranging with one study actually finding a 50% link in hereditary childhood loneliness.

Other issues such as financial difficulties and parental divorce can contribute to childhood loneliness. However the most concerning issues currently affecting loneliness worldwide and across all ages but with particular concern for children are social media and isolation as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.

The Role of Social Media 

While it can be recognised that social media has done a great deal to connect people across the world, there are also significant concerns for the social wellbeing of those who are spending increasing amounts of time online. The internet offers many young people a place to ‘belong’ with access to online platforms that allow people who may have otherwise been ostracised or excluded to connect with others with similar interests. In addition, the internet is also a space that substitutes context for ‘quick clicks’. The anonymity that may appear alluring to more shy individuals can create a false sense of social contact. Additionally, recent suicide attempts by young people experiencing online bullying and torment are of increasing concern to parents and schools. 

Social media encourages more sedentary behaviour and simply does not produce the same opportunities for creative, imaginary play that aids young people in reaching developmental goals. Research has shown more time sitting down is linked to poorer mental health, which in turn can affect young people’s ability to socialise and connect. 

COVID-19 Pandemic 

Since the first COVID-19 lockdown, public discourse has focused greatly on the concerns and potential outcomes of childhood loneliness caused or worsened by the pandemic and several lockdowns.

Research into the subject area was common before the pandemic and has only increased subsequently. Shifts in childhood socialising and play were already an area of concern. In a study completed in March 2020, just as the UK was preparing to go into the first Covid-19 lockdown, a group of young people were asked what they were most concerned about coping with over the next few months, and they said that their biggest concern was isolation and loneliness. A few months later in May 2020, 35% of young people stated that they felt lonely often or most of the time, despite spending around three hours each day on social media.

For young people, not being able to see their friends, interact and play as they once did, has caused a great disruption in their lives. One study concluded that children and adolescents are probably at a higher risk if experiencing increased rates of depression and anxiety during and after mandatory isolation ends.

Consequences of Childhood Loneliness 

Peer interactions and relations are incredibly important for healthy childhood development. Peer relationships provide an important context for the development of essential skills and qualities such as cooperation, problem solving, and can create lasting friendships. 

The UK Government has recently published research findings that show young people, disabled people, and the LGBTQ community are at higher risk of chronic loneliness. They report significant correlation between loneliness and mental health with chronic loneliness playing a significant role in the onset and continuation of mental health problems.

The findings also report that the two are inextricably linked with mental health distress, also playing a significant role in the onset and continuation of chronic loneliness. 

Various studies have found childhood loneliness to be an important determinant of long-term health and functioning. Moreover, various research efforts have found perceived childhood social isolation can be related to social skill deficits, sleep dysregulation, depression, suicidality, and substance use in adulthood.

Childhood Loneliness and Alcohol Consumption

In addition to mental health concerns and a rise in sedentary behaviour, loneliness could also increase the risk of problem drinking and alcohol abuse. A recent study in Arizona has found that feeling lonely in childhood is directly linked to more alcohol-related problems. It found that one of the key factors in this was stress. Emotional regulation, and the regulation of feelings of stress, is developed throughout life, but begins in childhood. Learning how to cope with difficult situations and emotions in social and play-based situations builds skills and coping mechanisms to help children manage more complex and critical situations as they grow up. 

It has been found that stress mediates the indirect connection between being lonely and impaired control. This can be linked to cortisol, the so-called stress hormone which research has shown to be present in higher levels in the saliva of lonely versus non-lonely people. Current epidemiological data supports a connection between stress and alcohol use disorder or addiction, yet stress alone is not the cause of such problems, with factors such as genetics, work, and life experience also playing an important role.

A 12-year longitudinal study, published in 2013 found that young people between the ages of 5 and 17 who experienced loneliness over time, consumed alcohol in greater quantities and more frequently at age 17 in comparison with children who did not experience loneliness. 

While it is clear that combating childhood loneliness is an important harm-reduction strategy for combating problem drinking and alcohol addiction in adulthood, the mechanisms for how best to do this and what the direct links between loneliness and alcohol consumption are still need further research.