Social Isolation, Perceived Loneliness and Mental Health in Adolescence

Heike Kr├╝ger


Background: Whereas loneliness is the subjective perception that the personal network is lacking in quality or quantity, social isolation refers to the objective absence of supportive relationships. Embeddedness in social networks counteracts perceived loneliness by strengthening the subjective feeling that there will be a confidant in potential problem situations. In addition, the absence of social isolation and perceived loneliness enhances mental health by creating stability and predictability in life and strengthening feelings of self-worth. The association is of a bidirectional nature as social isolation, perceived loneliness and mental health co-evolve over time. Poor mental health can also impact the ability to maintain social relationships or form new ones and is related to a greater extent to perceived loneliness. However, further research is needed to identify the underlying processes driving these associations and the role of group processes therein. Objective: The aim of this study was to investigate the co-development of social isolation, perceived loneliness and mental health in adolescence - thereby focusing on the feedback processes between network structure, structural positions within peer networks and changes in individuals' loneliness and mental health. Method: The question was examined using the SOCIALBOND data set, an ERC-funded longitudinal survey of German schools in the area of Nord Rhine Westphalia. The annual data collection started in grade eight and the first two waves are used within this study. Over 3,000 students were interviewed at 37 schools. Full social networks were collected on the grade level. Using name lists the students sorted their peers into cliques. Adding up all clique nominations within one grade, the resulting undirected weighted networks reflect the extent of social embeddedness versus social isolation of the respective grade and its adolescents. Relying less on ego's perception of her or his ties, the weighted clique networks are less prone to perception bias due to mental illness and therefore yield a more objective measure of social embeddedness than standard friendship network data. Stochastic actor-based models for network dynamics were estimated, modeling the co-evolution of social isolation, perceived loneliness, and mental health within the framework of RSiena. The grade level models are systematically combined in a meta-analysis to detect general tendencies.

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