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Lonely Girls: How the Pandemic Has Deepened the Isolation of Adolescents

July 29
16:24 2020

By Julie Jargon

Emerson Christman hasn’t gotten together with friends in four months because of the coronavirus pandemic. The loneliness is gnawing at her.

“It’s really hard not to see my friends. When you’re a 10-year-old, that’s all you care about,” she said. “I hate it, really.”

Emerson’s family has been more stringent about socially isolating than many of her friends’ families. Seeing her friends plan get-togethers over group texts has only magnified the loneliness.

“I’m not upset with my friends because I know they’re excited about seeing each other. I’m annoyed with my situation because we’re deciding not to see anyone,” she said. “It’s hard to make the best of it because there’s not much to do and it’s just a lot of family time, which is nice and not nice at the same time.”

Emerson said she cries a lot because she feels like she’s the only one not seeing friends.

Her mother, Erin Christman, feels helpless. “I try not to tell her how much harder this is for people who have lost jobs or relatives because I know for her and her 10-year-old world this is really hard,” Ms. Christman said. “I try to listen and validate her feelings and let her vent and yell and cry.”

As alone as Emerson feels, she has quite a bit of company. A recent nationwide study found that 78% of fifth- through eight-grade girls feel more lonely and isolated since the pandemic began. The same is true of older teens.

The study, conducted in May by the Rox Institute for Research & Training, the research arm of Ruling Our eXperiences, a nonprofit focused on girls, also found that of the younger girls in that study—ages 10 to 14—a third are spending four or more hours a day on social media, primarily on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.

Sources: Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX) survey subset, 915 girls grades five through eight across 61 schools, conducted nationally May 2020, online and by mail (isolated). Common Sense Media/SurveyMonkey poll, 849 teens ages 13 to 17 conducted nationally March 24 to April 1 (by gender).

All that time on social media is contributing to the loneliness, said Lisa Hinkelman, the nonprofit’s founder and CEO. “They were all in this together a few months ago when no one was allowed to be out and about, but now, with changing state restrictions and some families being more permissive about allowing sleepovers and trips, they can feel like they’re the only ones stuck at home,” she said.

“It’s not just the fear of missing out, it’s the actual missing out,” Dr. Hinkelman added.

Adolescent girls already were experiencing record-high levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression before the pandemic, according to Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and author of “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” She and her daughter documented the many reasons underlying the increased loneliness—spending more time online and less time in person with friends, among them—in an essay in The Wall Street Journal last August.

“All of the things that a year ago were increasing girls’ depression have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Dr. Pipher told me. “Our recommendations were that girls spend more time with other girls, that they spend more time outside the home and that parents encourage girls to take more risks in order to develop skills on their own. Most of those things aren’t happening now because of Covid.”

Spending more time on social media and less face-to-face time with friends can be harmful to girls in this critical developmental stage, Dr. Pipher said. For younger girls, whose parents don’t yet allow them to have social media accounts, texting is the communication tool of choice, and it’s a poor replacement for actual phone calls, Dr. Pipher said. “Girls are together but alone.”

Shortly after Emerson’s school closed in March, she and her family went from their home in Wyckoff, N.J., to Columbus, Ohio, to quarantine with her maternal grandparents. During that time, Emerson’s mother was busy helping the two younger siblings with remote school. Emerson was more self-sufficient and completed her school work before they did. With nothing else to do, she filled her bonus time by watching YouTube and texting friends on her iPad.

Prior to the pandemic, she was allowed to text only her grandparents and uncles, but she asked if she could add her best friend to her contacts list. Pretty soon a whole group of friends was texting. And where Emerson used to ask permission to watch certain YouTube videos, she began more freely streaming content unsupervised.

“I had control of the iPad use before the quarantine and I felt it slowly getting away from me,” Ms. Christman said. She didn’t do much to stop it, though, because it was Emerson’s only connection to friends.

Kids’ screen usage has soared during the pandemic and many kids have bypassed parental controls in an effort to get more screen time and escape the social isolation and boredom. Boys also feel lonely and have been seeking social connection with friends during this period, often through videogames. But in a survey conducted by Common Sense Media in the spring, far more teenage girls reported feeling more lonely than usual.

In June, the Christmans returned home to New Jersey for a few weeks before visiting Emerson’s other set of grandparents in Maine. Emerson’s paternal grandmother is Italian. The toll Covid-19 took on Italy intensified the family’s reaction. “My mother-in-law was watching her whole country fall apart,” Ms. Christman said.

The Christmans feel pressure to isolate for the sake of the paternal grandparents, who live near them in New Jersey part of the year. Many families around the country are now having similarly difficult conversations about social distancing.

“The grandparents have said that being with them will look different—if we see them at all—if we start to allow the kids to get together with others,” Ms. Christman said. “I don’t know that we’ll be able to sit inside with them at the dinner table like we have been or run and hug them if we start getting together with other people.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Christman added, “I don’t want Emerson to feel like she has to make a choice between her grandparents and her friends.”

Emerson isn’t sure if she’ll even see her friends when school resumes. Her family hasn’t yet decided if she will attend school virtually or in person. Emerson and her friends would normally be busy talking about their coming school year by now, but they’re instead talking about what middle school might be like a year from now.

“That’s what most of our FaceTime calls are about. It’s really nice to talk to my friends because they understand that,” she said. “My parents don’t understand what it’s like to be 10 in a pandemic.”


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Tarannum Naaz

Tarannum Naaz

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