I was a very shy teenager. Remember back in those dark days when there was no app to order your Chinese food and you had to call and speak to a human on the phone? Sheer terror. Sometimes they wouldn’t hear you because the kitchen was busy and you’d have to repeat yourself… THE HORROR. Definitely a situation to be avoided.
Thankfully, through forcing myself to speak in sixth form assemblies and subsequently teaching for a while – you try wrangling 30 15-year-olds to learn about ionic lattices – I’ve somewhat got over my shyness. It’s still there, mind you, but in practicing the art of ‘fake it til you make it’… I’ve kind of made it, at least a bit.
Considering my own experience of being young and awkward, when people talk about teenagers being socially anxious, it doesn’t really shock me. If you were one of those teenagers who somehow turned gracefully into a swan at the age of 14 then bravo to you, friend – but I’m reasonably sure you’re in the fortunate minority. Shy teens? Not a headline – until now. New research has shown that social media is compounding the issue, and causing a real, life-altering problem for our nation’s youth.
The report, undertaken by researchers at King’s College London, was commissioned by the National Citizen Service Trust, who run a summer programme aiming to help 15-17 year olds develop confidence, responsibility and new skills. During the research, 1000 teens aged between 12 and 17 were questioned, and six out of ten said they were lonely, while one in 20 said that they never spend time with their friends outside of school.
19-year-old Eva MacDonald, from Lincolnshire, said she became so nervous that she couldn’t bring herself to meet new people: 'My social skills were non-existent due to low self-esteem. I’d deliberately put barriers in place so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone.' This makes me really sad – but what does social media have to do with it? The report references some worrying and extreme cases of young people who are obsessed with social media, staying in their bedrooms and ending up afraid to mix with others in the real world.
It’s not too much of a stretch to see how social media can compound feelings of loneliness. As a teen, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, you don’t see the other people sitting on the sofa in their school uniform, waiting for potatoes to boil – all you see is photos of people hanging out with their mates, wearing new trainers that you can’t afford, and pouting confidently into a selfie. Everyone else seems happy, self-assured and most importantly, sociable.
This is a recognisable feeling for all of us; I don’t know many people immune to the self-doubt that strikes when you’re sat in your pyjamas with a cold and everyone else seems to be on holiday and drinking cocktails and looking great in their bikinis. So when you’re younger, and have less life experience to help you rationalise it all, it must be even easier to feel lonely – and then anxious about how lonely you are.
Dr Jennifer Lau, who led the research team at KCL, said: 'Loneliness for teenagers is an issue because they are starting out towards independence. It affects how many people you interact with and it is associated with anxiety and depression … Social skills are crucial in the workplace. Employers say it is very difficult to teach these. They should be nurtured early in life before teenagers get a job.'
So just one more thing for our stressed out teenagers to worry about then. Feel lonely and worried about interacting with people? Well you should be worried because it’s going to screw you over… forever.
One thing young people are usually pretty good at is being aware of themselves. While you’re developing who you are, dying your hair pink, wearing too much bronzer and doing everything you can to generate exhausted tuts from your mum – if you’re also aware that you’re worried about meeting people, do something about it ASAP. Be brave. Join a club, do some volunteering, or get a part time job. Bonus – extra cash for more bronzer. I remember standing there in a cold sweat, utterly petrified, the first time I had to stand up in assembly and address 100 of my peers, but if you make yourself do it, then you will care less and less over time.
If it helps, I’m still dying my hair pink, and my mum doesn’t sigh about it at all. It’s all going to be alright in the end.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.