How does loneliness during childhood affect people as they grow up? Being lonely before 12 years of age is linked to stress and alcohol problems in young adulthood, researchers found.
Loneliness affects about a third of people in industrialized countries, the researchers wrote in their study, to be published in the Addictive Behaviors Report. It is the “pain of feeling socially isolated from others,” they explained. And even before the pandemic, one in 10 children aged 10 to 12 reported feeling lonely, Arizona State University (ASU) noted in a news release.
“To date, it has not been determined whether loneliness experienced as a child can indirectly influence at-risk patterns of alcohol use through the mediating mechanism of stress and impaired control,” the researchers wrote.
For their study, the researchers looked at the direct and indirect relationships between loneliness during childhood, alcohol-related problems, stress and impaired control over alcohol use (IC). Participants were 310 university students aged 18 or older, 154 of whom were women and 156 were men.
The researchers found that loneliness before the age of 12 was “directly linked” to both stress and alcohol-related problems.
“Perceived stress mediated the indirect link between childhood loneliness and IC,” they wrote. “Our findings are consistent with previous literature which links adverse childhood experience to problematic drinking outcomes in emerging adulthood, but are also novel as they present a stress-mediated pathway by which childhood loneliness results in dysregulated drinking.”
According to the researchers, therapeutic interventions to combat childhood loneliness may “disrupt” the pathways that lead to “dysregulated alcohol use” in adulthood.
Apart from shedding light on the mechanisms by which childhood loneliness may impact young adults’ alcohol use, the study also prompts concerns over the current generation of kids.
“The data used in this study were collected before the pandemic, and the findings suggest that we could have another public health crisis on our hands in a few years as today’s children grow up,” one of the study authors, Julie Patock-Peckham of ASU, said in the news release.
Indeed, many children were isolated from their peers for a quite long time since the outbreak of coronavirus. Even earlier in the pandemic, there were concerns about the long-term impact of loneliness on children’s well-being, with research showing links with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
“We need more research into whether mitigating childhood loneliness could be a way to disrupt the pathways that lead to alcohol use disorders in adults,” said Patock-Peckham. “Combating childhood loneliness should help to reduce impaired control over drinking, especially among women.”