The shocking amount of time teens spend alone

Australian teens are spending hours alone every day - more than six hours on some days - and with the long Christmas holidays underway the likelihood is that many will spend more time than usual on their own.

Experts fear the time alone will lead to a generation of lonely and socially inept adults, who lack the skills to interact with others, and whose mental health will suffer.

New research from the nation's biggest study into the lives of children shows the amount of time the youngsters are left on their own rises markedly during their high school years.

Professionals believe the growing use of streaming services is contributing to children spending more time alone in their bedrooms.
Professionals believe the growing use of streaming services is contributing to children spending more time alone in their bedrooms.

Parenting experts are shocked at the extent of the isolation, uncovered by the Australian Longitudinal Study into Australian Children using written time use diaries filled out by the children themselves.

On weekdays, children aged between 10 and 11 years of age spent 3.5 hours alone and 4.5 hours alone on weekends.

"A significant change in children's time use as they get older is the increase in the time they spend alone," Australian Institute of Family Studies researcher Jennifer Baxter reported.

By the ages of age 14 to 15, typically Year 9 in high school, the average amount of time spent alone was 4.7 hours per day on weekdays and 6.3 hours per day on weekends.

Health and childhood professionals believe screen technology - including the growing use of streaming video services such as Netflix, is contributing to children retreating to their bedrooms.

New research shows the amount of time young people are left on their own rises markedly during high school.
New research shows the amount of time young people are left on their own rises markedly during high school.

 

But they say social isolation is linked to a range of mental health disorders.

"Children need to interact in person with other people - that's how they learn social negotiation skills," says Professor Anita Bundy, from Sydney University's health sciences faculty.

"Those hours are extraordinary. I'm not against screen time per se - but it's like eating chocolate, there's nothing wrong with chocolate in itself but if that's all you ever ate you'd be in trouble.

"You actually have to practice social negotiations. And if kids don't learn to do that, I think a lot of what is now called bullying is bad social negotiation".

She says very few other children are playing outside now "so why would you go out?".

Parenting expert Dr Michael Carr Gregg, who wrote his PhD on adolescents with cancer, says he found those children were significantly impacted by not being able to spend time with friends or get social support.

"It was one of their biggest problems," he says.

"Loneliness is often associated with quite significant levels of depression and anxiety. It's stopping them from tackling a key developmental tasks. Social skills are fundamental to being a young person.

Children aged between 10 and 11 spend 3.5 hours alone on weekdays. David Clark
Children aged between 10 and 11 spend 3.5 hours alone on weekdays. David Clark

"As a developmental psychologist you have to know humans are social beings.

"There is a consensus among developmental psychologists that the single greatest prediction of wellbeing among young people is having a repertoire of friends.

"Prolonged periods of limited interaction or loneliness, or social isolation, is very closely associated with mental health problems."

The reputable educational PISA surveys of 15-year-old students - run across OECD countries every three years - found earlier this year that Australian teens have grown more lonely, "awkward", are less able to make friends and have a poorer sense of belonging at school.

While other OECD countries also recorded drops, Australia fared worse. Back in 2003, 94 per cent of the Aussie kids said they did not feel lonely at school, but this fell by 10 points to 84 per cent by 2015.

Similarly, 91 per cent said disagreed that they felt "awkward and out of place" at school back in 2003, but by 2015, this figure dropped to 78 per cent.

They were also six per cent more likely to have trouble making friends and 16 per cent more likely to report they "don't belong".

BEATING ISOLATION A KEY TO HAPPINESS

Josette Mouawad is an ambassador for Beyond Blue. Picture: David Swift.
Josette Mouawad is an ambassador for Beyond Blue. Picture: David Swift.

 

Josette Mouawad dreams of becoming a doctor, has a thriving network of university friends and is interested in debating and philosophy.

But far from the independent and social teenager she is now, when she migrated to Australia from Lebanon at age eight, her new home in Sydney was a lonely place.

The 18-year-old (pictured) from Condell Park in Sydney's west would spend far too many hours in her own company, leading to isolation, loneliness and eventually depression.

"I spent a lot of time on my own growing up," she told The Saturday Telegraph.

"I didn't have a group of friends when I first arrived and that made it difficult, so I felt really lonely. I like to read and so was spending time by myself but I still craved to be with people and that's something I wasn't getting when I was a child."

At age 16, Ms Mouawad was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety which culminated, sadly, in an attempt to take her life.

"It was very severe, I was unable to function at school, it was difficult to even leave the house or get out of bed."

Through professional help, medication and therapy, Ms Mouawad now recognises her mental health issues started long before she was diagnosed.

"Loneliness makes you vulnerable to feeling depressed, so if you don't have a group of friends, you're not able to reach out to people," she said.

"When I was depressed, I was seeking isolation because that seemed like the easiest thing to do, but that was exactly what you shouldn't do because it just made it worse."

Ms Mouawad found her way out of isolation via social activities such as a debating group, a philosophy club and other university groups and urges others to do the same.

"Face-to-face interaction is really important," she said.

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800

 

BONDING IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Scouts Morgan Power 13, Hayley Weaver 13, Luca Sanchez 13 and Callum Power 16. Picture: Tim Hunter.
Scouts Morgan Power 13, Hayley Weaver 13, Luca Sanchez 13 and Callum Power 16. Picture: Tim Hunter.

 

Whether they are abseiling, kayaking or learning to work as a team, these Scouts cherish the time they have together.

But all of them acknowledge they spend too much time on their electronic devices and on their own - and that Scouting helps combat their social isolation.

Scout Luca Sanchez, 13, said: "When you come back from a Scouting night, you're not necessarily drawn to the technology that you have access to. You feel like you don't need it as much and you're not as dependent on it for satisfaction and entertainment. I like doing the adventurous activities like kayaking and camping."

His friend, Hayley Weaver, 13, said she felt guilty after spending too much time alone on her phone.

"But I keep busy by doing other activities like Scouts, hockey, drama and music," she said.

Scout leader Aaron Tomlins said Scouting helped teenagers build their social skills and, importantly, got them away from screens and interacting with others.



STORM WARNING: Severe thunderstorms to hit Wide Bay

STORM WARNING: Severe thunderstorms to hit Wide Bay

Batten the hatches: BOM warns of damaging winds, large hailstones, heavy rainfall...

Greg Armstrong murder trial: Judge retires for verdict

Premium Content Greg Armstrong murder trial: Judge retires for verdict

The unsolved murder of Gregory Armstrong could be cracked in days

Election promise: LNP throws $600k lifeline to Moore Park

Premium Content Election promise: LNP throws $600k lifeline to Moore Park

The club house sustained damage after Cyclone Oswald battered the region in 2010.