Solitude versus connectedness in adolescence

Humans have the fundamental need to be socially connected with others. It is known that being connected with others has strong positive effects on one’s wellbeing. However, during the pandemic all of us experience less face-to-face interactions and, thus, less social connection due to social distancing. Because the younger generation may experience the most restrictions on their daily social lives, one can argue that these young individuals are affected most by the pandemic. What does it mean for adolescents to spend more time alone, while it is so important for them to spend time with their peers?

The art of connection
During adolescence, interactions with peers become more important than interactions with family members. Adolescence can be seen as a transitional phase from childhood to adulthood with social challenges and behavioral changes. During this formative phase for social development, adolescents experience novel social situations with their peers. Being connected with their peers and friends is especially important for adolescents, because it helps them to navigate through a more complex social world. This, in turn, helps them to develop into a socially well-functioning adult with caring and mature social relations. Indeed, peer interactions and friendships during this developmental period are associated with positive short and long-term effects, such as higher resiliency, better school performance, more adaptive social skills, and better mental health.

The art of solitude
Even though social interactions and peer relationships are important for adolescents, alone-time can also be beneficial for their development. Some argue that adolescents need this alone-time to deal with their developmental tasks, since adolescence also represents a time of discovering oneself. Solitude can therefore be helpful at times. Several benefits, which may be of particular importance for adolescents during their formative years, are being mentioned in the literature:

Emotion regulation: solitude can play a role in the self-regulation of emotions and thoughts. Spending time alone can help people to reduce their negative affects, such as anxiety.

Self-awareness: solitude is also a time to reflect on and to process experiences and thoughts. These self-focused experiences can in turn increase self-awareness (i.e., the awareness of one’s own thoughts and feelings), which is an adaptive ability for adolescents to have.

Creativity: creative work can be achieved by spending time alone. Adolescents are known for their creativity and ‘out of the box’ thinking. Alone-time can help adolescents to develop and utilize their creativity.

Identity development: solitude serves as an opportunity to explore one’s identity, because it creates time and space to reflect on your emotions, thoughts and experiences. This may be of particular importance during adolescence, since establishing one’s identity is a crucial task in this developmental period.

“The value of time alone rises particularly during adolescence, when it is useful for emotional restoration, pursuit of autonomous activities, and teenagers’ development of interests and identities.”

(Nugyen, Weinstein, & Ryan, in press)

One important thing to point out is the role of motivation on spending time alone. There is quite a difference between being alone and choosing to be alone. It is known that there are more positive and less negative effects when alone-time is voluntary. Even though social distancing during the pandemic forces us to spend more time alone, knowing the benefits of alone-time can help in this regard.

Take-home message
The challenge for adolescents during these times is to deal with the solitude they may be experiencing. I hope I got the message of the art of both situations across: each has its own advantages. My message to young individuals is therefore to find a balance between spending time alone and connecting with others. Make the most out of each situation.

Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. doi: 10.1037/0033.2909.117.3.497
Blakemore, S.-J., & Mills, K.L. (2014). Is adolescence a sensitive period for sociocultural processing? Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 187-207. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115202
Lam, C.B., McHale, S.M., & Crouter, A.C. (2014). Time with peers from middle childhood to late adolescence: Developmental course and adjustment correlates. Child Development, 85, 1677-1693. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12235
Musetti, A., Corsano, P., Majorano, M., & Mancini, T. (2012). Identity processes and experience of being alone during late adolescence. International Journal of Psychoanalysis and Education, 4.
Nguyen, T.T., Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2017). Solitude as an approach to affective self-regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 92-106. doi: 10.1177/0146167217733073
Nguyen, T.T., Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R.M. (in press). The possibilities of aloneness and solitude: Developing an understanding framed through the lens of human motivation and needs. Manuscript submitted for publication.
van Harmelen, A.-L., Kievit, R.A., Ioannidis, K., Neufeld, S., Jones, P.B., Bullmore, E., … Goodyer, I. (2017). Adolescent friendships predict later resilient functioning across psychosocial domains in a healthy community cohort. Psychological Medicine, 47, 2312-2322. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717000836



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