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Loneliness isn't only a teen or adult problem. Little kids feel it, too.

Sad girl looks at her teddy bear on the floor.

To be human is to be lonely at some point in life, but there's an important caveat: We typically think of isolation and loneliness as an adult or teen mental health experience, not one that happens to young children. Yet a new nationally representative survey of 1,000 girls commissioned by the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) offers striking evidence to the contrary.

In the survey, nearly two-thirds of the youngest girls, aged 5 to 7, reported feelings of loneliness. This percentage ticked up with age; nearly three quarters of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 felt the same.

While the survey didn't explore factors contributing to girls' loneliness, experts say parental isolation and household screen time likely play a key role. In general, social connection appears to be declining, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's 2023 report on loneliness and isolation. Social networks are getting smaller, and participation in community organizations is decreasing.

"[W]e have to realize that it's a reflection of what is happening with our adults," said Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), of the survey's findings.

While NAMI wasn't involved in the poll, the nonprofit partners with GSUSA to provide mental health resources for girls, staff, and adult volunteers.

Crawford, who wasn't surprised by the survey's findings, said that when parents and caregivers aren't connected to a community or network, their kids often lack similar opportunities as well. She noted that adults are lonely for a variety of reasons, including because they may spend more time on a screen than cultivating in-person relationships.

Why young girls may experience loneliness

The survey reached girls by contacting their parents via email with a request to complete the poll in March 2024. Parents whose children were not yet old enough to read narrated the questions and filled in the responses.

Sarah Keating, vice president, girl and volunteer experience at GSUSA, told Mashable that the organization surveyed girls on the topic after hearing from troop members in recent years that mental health was their top concern.

The survey found that as loneliness increased with age, girls' confidence also decreased. Only 73 percent of 11- to 13-year-old girls said they believed in their ability to "tackle challenges," compared to 86 percent of girls between the ages of 5 and 7.

Keating said that feelings of loneliness among the youngest girls may be linked to how much time they and their family spend on screens.

A Pew Research report released in March on teen and parent screen time found that nearly half of teens said their parent was "at least sometimes distracted by their phone" during conversations. About the same percentage of teens said they are themselves online "almost constantly."

While the Pew report did not address younger children, data collected by the UK communications regulator Ofcom found that children 5 to 7 are increasingly online. Three-quarters of them use a tablet and almost a quarter own a smartphone.

"Everyone is in their own room doing their own thing," said Dr. Whitney Raglin Bignall, associate clinical director of The Kids Mental Health Foundation, who was not involved in the survey. "In many ways, the family is not as connected as it once was because of distraction."

How to spot loneliness in young children

Raglin Bignall said that while loneliness is a normal emotion, too much of it can be harmful. Isolation is a risk factor for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thinking or behavior.

Though parents may be on the lookout for signs of loneliness, Raglin Bignall said they can be tricky to spot in younger children, who might be unable to express that they feel alone or may appear content when occupied with an activity. She noted that it's generally important for parents to teach their children about feelings and how to share them as a regular practice, not just when they suspect that something is amiss.

Crawford, of NAMI, recommends that parents watch for changes in their child's daily functioning. If they are normally cheerful and engaged but have frequently become bored, withdrawn, or decline to attend school or social activities, that's a sign parents shouldn't ignore. Neither are changes in sleep, appetite, energy level, and academic performance.

If a child is struggling to communicate what they're feeling, they may become angry, irritable, and prone to meltdowns. Crawford said that's a way for young people to articulate their distress, particularly when they don't have a history of tantrums.

Children who talk about being a burden to others, or feeling like no one cares about them or that they don't want to be alive, should be seen immediately by a trusted health care provider as they may be experiencing suicidal feelings, said Crawford.

She urges parents who worry that their child is lonely not to immediately assume that they are, because they may be experiencing a different challenge. Instead, Crawford recommends that parents reach out to their child and talk nonjudgmentally and with curiosity about what they've observed, which might include frequent crying, hesitance to visit the playground, or increased distance from friends.

What to do if your child is lonely

Crawford said that when a child indicates they're lonely, parents should start by asking what would help them feel more connected. They may have simple responses, like taking a walk with their parent or visiting a relative's house. Parents can also suggest things that help them feel less alone as a way of modeling coping skills to their child.

The GSUSA survey found that most girls of all ages would prefer to be creative, go outside and play, or spend time with their family rather than be on a screen. Parents who learn that their child is lonely could start by evaluating screen time both for the child and the family, looking for opportunities to prioritize in-person experiences instead.

Crawford said that parents should also consider whether the activities their children participate in are geared toward social connection or performance. Think, for example, of a youth soccer team that focuses on technical skills instead of learning how to work as a team and communicate with others. For a child who feels lonely, a team built around the individual experience may make them feel isolated, even in the presence of other kids.

Raglin Bignall recommended that parents share with their child what a healthy friendship looks like and talk with them about social challenges they may experience at school or on the playground. The Kids Mental Health Foundation has a library of relationship-related resources for parents, including articles on how to help kids make friends and helping children who feel like they don't fit in.

Raglin Bignall said she hopes the survey results remind people that young children can be deeply affected by chronic loneliness, and that parents can be proactive about preventing it.

"Humans need to belong, we need to fit in, and we need to connect with other people," she said.

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