Children who feel lonely are more likely to leave school with worse grades than classmates who never experience loneliness.
Even a temporary bout of loneliness at age 12 puts children at risk of worse qualifications when they leave school up to six years later, according to a new study.
And the findings underline the need for greater post-pandemic mental health support for young people, who suffered a prolonged separation from their friends during lockdown.
Loneliness is linked with a range of adverse mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
And now experts at King’s College London have drawn a link between loneliness experienced in early adolescence – at age 12 – and poorer educational outcomes.
And without adequate support, researchers warn that loneliness could as as force for downward social mobility.
Children who felt lonely at 12 were found to be at increased risk of a range of negative outcomes, including poor mental health, self-harm, compulsive mobile phone use and unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking.
But they were also found to be at greater risk of leaving school with worse grades than classmates who did not feel lonely, according to the study, published in the journal Development and Psychcopathology.
And the impact on grades appeared to outlast the impact on mental health.
Where children experienced loneliness at 12 but later ‘recovered’, they were at lower risk of poor mental health outcomes by age 18, but they were still more likely to leave school with poorer qualifications.
Researchers suggest this may be due to loneliness in early adolescence causing significant disruption, and that children are unable to make up the lost ground without significant support.
“Loneliness during someone’s teenage years can have serious impact on their later life,” said Dr Timothy Matthews, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s and lead author of the study.
“Loneliness, however temporary, can be an extremely distressing experience, and we should make every effort to support those that need it so that they can overcome it.”
Almost half of 10-12-year-olds said they felt lonely some of the time, with around one in seven saying they often felt that way, Dr Matthews added.
The study tracked around 2,200 young people from age 12 to 18. By the age of 18, those who had undergone periods of loneliness in the previous six years were the most likely to experience problems such as anxiety and depression, as well as having worse sleep and feeling less likely to be satisfied with their lives.
While there were some genetic factors that put some people at greater risk of experiencing persistent loneliness, environmental factors such as a loving home and supportive parents had a greater influence on whether someone moved in and out of loneliness.
“This study attests to the importance of early interventions to ensure that lonely young people… are identified and given the support that they need to ensure they don’t start on the back foot,” said Professor Louise Arseneault, the study’s senior author from King’s IoPPN.