Childhood and Adolescent Loneliness

Dr Kimberley Brownlee
University of Warwick
Dr Pamela Qualter
University of Central Lancashire


This interdisciplinary project will address conceptual, psychological, and ethical issues of childhood and adolescent loneliness. The research retreat will bring together philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists to tackle such questions as: What is the nature of the experience of loneliness during childhood and adolescence? How severe are its effects? What are the online behaviours of lonely children and adolescents? Is

it morally acceptable to encourage lonely children and adolescents to use social media as a surrogate for direct interaction? What rights, if any, do children and adolescents have against being socially isolated or lonely? If children prefer to be isolated, do we have good psychological and moral reasons to disregard their preferences? The retreat will isolate those questions that can only be addressed within an interdisciplinary framework. The retreat will also enable the researchers to press each other on those aspects of their work that rely on the other disciplines’ expertise. In addition to developing ideas for a number of single-authored and co-authored publications, the researchers aim to design a national survey on loneliness in young people. The researchers will also establish an international, interdisciplinary network of scholars interested in these issues and will make use of existing contacts with stakeholders to disseminate the conclusions outside academia.

The Research Idea

This research retreat will bring together a select team of philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists to examine conceptual, empirical, and ethical questions about loneliness, with a specific focus on loneliness among children and adolescents.

This planned retreat is innovative on several fronts. First, the participating researchers (listed in Section 5) are all experts on distinctive aspects of the theme of childhood and/or adolescent loneliness and, hence, are well placed to challenge one other on the claims and methods that rely on each other’s areas of expertise.

Second, the retreat will bring out the limits of each discipline’s potential to determine the nature and seriousness of childhood loneliness, thereby identifying key issues that can only be addressed fruitfully through interdisciplinary work. The retreat will yield new insights for each discipline, and open up space for further collaborations and bids for funding.

Third, for the philosophers, and to a lesser extent the psychologists and sociologists, the retreat will tease out issues that are largely neglected in contemporary debates: What duties do we have to ensure that children and adolescents have meaningful social connections? What is the full range of social rights that children and adolescents can assert? What are the virtues in sociability, particularly with and among youth? What is the overall value for young people in being socially included and psychologically connected with families and friends?


The negative effects of both loneliness, understood as perceived social isolation, and actual social isolation are well documented. Psychological studies indicate that chronic loneliness in people of all ages generates the same anxiety-inducing ‘fight or flight’ response as pain, hunger, or fear.(1) Studies associate chronic loneliness with obesity, increased elevated blood pressure, diminished immunity, reduction in independent living, alcoholism, depression, and suicidal ideation,(2) and show the impact of chronic loneliness on sleep, poor health, and gains in depression for adolescents and young adults.(3) Objective social isolation is also linked to poor mental health outcomes across the lifespan.(4)

In the acute context of coercive social isolation, such as in prison or, worse, solitary confinement, the effects can be even more severe. Studies indicate that prisoners held in solitary confinement can suffer memory loss, hallucinations, panic attacks, self- mutilation, and suicidal ideation and behaviour, and the effects can persist after their

release thereby rendering them less able to re-integrate socially.(5) The effects for

young people are even worse because their brains are not yet fully developed.(6)

Despite the empirical evidence for poor mental and physical health, social isolation, loneliness, and interpersonal human rights have received little conceptual, analytic, and normative attention in contemporary philosophy. Briefly, there is a rapidly expanding literature in human rights theory that examines the philosophical foundations of human rights as a set of morally minimal protections that respect a person as a human being.(7) But, little attention has been given in that literature to interpersonal human rights.

The Focus

What attention has been paid to interpersonal needs and rights tends to subsume them under economic-welfare rights such as basic subsistence, health, and education. Bringing interdisciplinary expertise to bear on the analysis of social rights will enhance a small, but growing sub-field of study in moral, legal, and political theory that has the potential to have a significant impact on policymaking and institutional practices as well as on social attitudes toward social isolation, loneliness, and wellbeing.

The research retreat will also include discussion of new technologies as a way of meeting the social needs of lonely and/or socially isolated children and adolescents. If socially ‘assistive’ technologies could meet (some of) children’s and adolescents’ psychological needs for (apparent) social interaction, then we must ask if those technologies could be morally defensible substitutes for direct human contact. If they could be, then they would offer a way to honour some of the social human rights of vulnerable, but dangerous, people such as juvenile offenders or children with contagious diseases.

The analysis of social technologies must be shaped by normative and conceptual arguments about what it means to respect persons as social beings, which may not be reducible to meeting their needs for (apparent) human interaction. There is a small, but growing number of philosophers, interested in the ethics of emerging technologies,(8) and their work will be discussed at the retreat. This normative work needs to be synthesised with psychological perspectives on our capacities to perceive differences between virtual and actual interactions.(9)

Theoretical Novelty

The retreat will explore such questions as follows: What is the nature of the experience of loneliness during childhood and adolescence? How severe are the effects of loneliness for children and adolescents? What are the online behaviours of lonely children and adolescents? Is it morally acceptable to encourage lonely children and adolescents to use social media as a surrogate for direct interaction? What rights, if any, do children and adolescents have against being socially isolated or lonely? If children prefer to be isolated, are there good psychological and moral arguments to disregard their preferences?

Through discussion, the interdisciplinary team will have opportunities to reframe, in light of the discussions, what they already know within their respective disciplines about social isolation and loneliness in childhood. The research retreat provides time for the team to reflect on and reframe familiar ideas in order to assimilate new knowledge about loneliness and social isolation from peers in different disciplines. In addition, by asking new questions and challenging old concepts, the team will generate new concepts and ideas in relation to social isolation and loneliness. The interdisciplinary make-up of the team makes this re-formulation of concepts highly likely and potentially very fruitful.


The five philosophers in the project all aim to produce empirically well-informed research. Briefly, Kimberley Brownlee (Warwick) is pioneering a philosophical account of the ethics of sociability and social human rights that emphasises, amongst other things, the moral tragedy of loneliness; Elizabeth Brake (tbc) (ASU) is an expert on parental rights and marriage and is developing new interests in social goods as objects of distributive justice; Tim Thornton (University of Central Lancashire) has expertise in both philosophy and psychiatry, specifically on clinical judgment, idiographic and narrative understanding, the interpretation of psychopathology, and social constructionism in psychiatry; Anca Gheaus (Sheffield) is an expert on children’s rights, parents’ rights, care, and justice; and Adam Swift (Warwick) has training in both philosophy and sociology, and is internationally renowned for his work on the ethics and politics of the family. All five philosophers will benefit from psychologists’ expert guidance on psychological dimensions of childhood loneliness.

Similarly, the four psychologists in the project will benefit from challenges by the philosophers on their conceptual specifications of loneliness and related terms, their chosen measurements, and their ethical assumptions. Pamela Qualter (University of Central Lancashire) is the UK’s leading expert on childhood and adolescent loneliness. Luc Goossens (Leuven) is the leading European expert on adolescent loneliness, with a special interest in gene-environment interactions. Rebecca Harris (Bolton) is an expert on cognitive, interpretative and behavioural biases related to loneliness, online behaviour of lonely people, and the impact of loneliness on the transition from primary to secondary school. Manuela Barreto (Exeter) is an expert on stigmatisation and how it leads to social isolation.

In addition to this team, the organisers will recruit an expert in sociology who researches the effects of social relations on mental wellbeing, with a focus on loneliness, anxiety and depression across different social and demographic groups.

Work Plan

Building on the researchers’ experience of a recent one-day roundtable event dedicated to discussion of adolescent loneliness (University of Central Lancashire, October 2015), the ISRF retreat will be structured in the following way. The first two days of the retreat will be organised in a roundtable format that will allow each contributor to present their work and to identify questions for discussion. The next three days of the retreat will involve more focused brainstorming sessions, small break out group sessions, and general collaborative discussion. The final two days will explore possibilities for follow-on collaborations and funding bids as well as identify relevant stakeholders and share networks, contacts, links, resources, and references.

Through these exchanges, the interdisciplinary team will develop a collective email list of interested UK and international researchers, drawing on existing contacts, literature searches, and web searches, which the team will use to inform interested academics about the results of the retreat.

Given the make-up of the interdisciplinary team and the numerous points of intersection among team members’ areas of expertise, the retreat will lay the foundation for a number of concrete academic outputs, including both interdisciplinary outputs and single-discipline outputs, such as co-authored articles and single-authored works informed by the other disciplines. The team, led by the organisers, will also make plans for further academic and public debate, including blogs and webinars (described below).

Finally, the team will work with the sociologists with the aim of designing a national survey on loneliness in young people.


The team will use blog posts and established websites at the researchers’ host institutions to summarise the core ideas of the retreat and to present working papers so as to ensure further conceptual innovation. Through blog posts and other online media, the team will advertise two webinars: one that disseminates the researchers’ ideas from the retreat (in a conference format), and a second, in a roundtable format, that will ask for the opinions of other researchers with the aim of increasing conceptual and normative development around the themes of child and adolescent loneliness and interpersonal social rights.

The investigators will identify relevant stakeholders such as families, foster homes, schools, hospitals, orphanages, juvenile detention centres, and immigration facilities in the UK and abroad to understand the empirical realities of youth loneliness and to highlight the ethical issues of social deprivation. The team will aim to discuss the outcomes of the retreat with these stakeholders to further discussions on social isolation and loneliness in childhood and adolescence.

Additionally, the team will contact charities, such as the Campaign to End Loneliness, with whom the researchers already have contact to encourage discussion on the right

to have opportunities for social contact. Part of the online space will be designed for these groups and for conversations with them about loneliness among children and adolescents.

Finally, the team will draw on existing links with policymakers, such as members of the Department of Education, to promote the webinars and to feedback the results of the retreat.


(1) Qualter, P., Vanhalst, J., Harris, R., van Roekel, E., Lodder, G., Bangee, M., … Verhagen, M. (2015). Loneliness across the life span. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 250–264.

(2) Cacioppo, J. T. et al (2008), Loneliness. W. W. Norton & Company; Decety, J. et al (2011), Handbook of Social Neuroscience. Oxford.

(3) Harris, R. et al (2013), ‘Loneliness Trajectories from Middle Childhood to Pre- Adolescence: Impact on Perceived Health and Sleep Disturbance’, Journal of Adolescence, Issue on Loneliness, 36, 1295-1304; Ladd, G.W. et al (2013), ‘Peer- related loneliness across early to late adolescence: Normative trends, intra-individual trajectories, and links with depressive symptoms’, Journal of Adolescence, 36, 1269–1282; 52. Qualter, P. et al (2013), ‘Trajectories of Loneliness during Childhood and Adolescence: Predictors and health outcomes’, The Journal of Adolescence: Special Issue on Loneliness, 36, 1283-1293; Vanhalst, J., et al. (2012). The development of loneliness from mid- to late adolescence: Trajectory classes, personality traits, and psychosocial functioning. Journal of Adolescence, 36, 1305–1312.

(4) Shankar, A., Bjorn Rafnsson, S., Steptoe, A. (2014). Longitudinal associations between social connections and subjective wellbeing in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Psychological Health , 1-29; Caspi A, Harrington H, Moffitt TE, Milne BJ, Poulton R. (2006). Socially isolated children 20 years later: risk of cardiovascular disease. Archives Paediatric Adolescent Medicine. 160, 805-811.

(5) Arrigo, B. A., et al (2008), ‘The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units’, Int J Offender Ther, 52:6, 622-640; Haney, C. (2003), ‘Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement’, Crime & Delinquency, 49: 124-156.

(6) Castillo, L.C. (2015). No Child Left Alone. Iowa Law Review, 100.

(7) Nickel, J. (2007), Making Sense of Human Rights, 2nd edition. Blackwell; Nickel, J. (2005), ‘Poverty and Human Rights’, Philos Quart, 55: 220, 385-402; Shue, H. (1996), Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and US Foreign Policy, 2nd edition. Princeton; Tasioulas, J. (in progress), Human Rights: From Morality to Law. Oxford; 35. Pogge, T. (ed.) (2007), Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right. Oxford; Griffin, J. (2008), On Human Rights. Oxford; Wellman, C. (2010), The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights. Oxford; and Beitz, C. et al (eds) (2009), Global Basic Rights. Oxford.

(8) Vallor, Shannon (2012), ‘Social Networking and Ethics’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.); Vallor, Shannon (2010), ‘Social Networking Technology and the Virtues’ in Ethics & Information Technology 12:2, 157-170.

(9) Schönbrodt, Felix D., and Asendorpf, Jens B. (2012), ‘Attachment Dynamics in a Virtual World’ in The Journal of Personality, 80: 2, 429-63; Kanea, H. et al (2012),’Mere presence is not enough: Responsive support in a virtual world’ in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48:1, 37–44; Coulson, Mark et al (2012), ‘Real feelings for virtual people: Emotional attachments and interpersonal attraction in video games.’ in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 1: 3, 176-184.