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Column: Kids say they're lonely and that needs to change

A little more socializing can go a long way.
Richmond community members enjoying a day out in the snow.

One in four young people in B.C. often or always feel lonely, a new survey of youth aged 12 to 19 shows.

The B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, held every five years for the past 30 years and conducted by the McCreary Centre Society, surveyed 38,500 youth in B.C. schools in 2023.

Other surprising news from the survey shows that youth were more likely to have self-harmed in the past year, engaged in disordered eating, experienced sexual abuse and been bereaved due to overdose and violence. They were less likely to rate their physical and mental health positively.

On the positive side, there was an increase in Indigenous youth who could speak a few words of an Indigenous language and youth were less likely to have engaged in sexual activity, to have vaped, smoked tobacco, drunk alcohol or used cannabis, the survey found.

But I want to talk about this loneliness statistic – something I find sad and reflective of the fact we spend more and more of our lives staring at screens, interacting online. We live in an increasingly polarized world and if we don’t learn to connect with each other when we’re young, it’s going to be hard to find common ground as we grow up.

It’s not only children who are experiencing a decrease in mental health – surveys of adults have found similar, including one by Health Canada which found a correlation between high screen time and lower mental health indicators.

Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act introduced federally, aims to protect youth from the most egregious harms of online usage, such as the sexual exploitation of youth online. While that action is very much needed, the harms of living online can be much less explicit than outright exploitation or even online bullying.

It can be as simple as comparing your life to the lives of others online – How come she has lost so much weight? Where did they get the money to go to France? Why does he have such nice shoes? Those are all questions that could easily arise from a glance at my social media feed.

Or it may be the addictive nature of social media and how spending hours inert staring at a screen is different from getting outside with friends to throw a frisbee around or taking a walk in nature.

My generation – Gen X – is mocked online for saying we played outside every day from dawn to dusk, drinking water from a hose without wearing sunscreen, while our parents didn’t know what we were up to. It may be a stereotype, but for me, it was real. If we tried to hang out inside, we’d be swept out the door again in no time.

As a book lover who wanted nothing more than to cuddle up and read my book all day, I felt that pressure to get outside and mingle with others, all the time. But you know what? I did it and I’m happy for that. I still love to read a good book, but it’s my relationships with others and getting outside for a good walk at least once a day that keep me going.  

Earlier this year, I wrote about the idea of banning smartphones in classrooms and mentioned something I heard in a Christiane Amanpour interview on CNN. NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway said on her show that loneliness was the biggest threat from artificial intelligence and that deep and meaningful relationships are the most rewarding things in life.

Since then, the provincial government announced smartphones will be restricted in B.C. classrooms next year and there will be increased digital literacy training. If the smartphone restrictions are flexible, I’m in favour, but I would like to put in a word of encouragement for schools to be allocated time to focus specifically on teaching kids how to socialize, become friends and maintain relationships.

The youth survey found that youth were less likely than five years earlier to feel connected to their school or to have in-person friends. But one positive note was that a long-term trend that shows declining participation in casual sports was halted and there was a slight increase from five years earlier.

The type of team-building skills and social interactions inherent in casual sports is just the sort of thing kids need. A little more socializing and fun in schools right now might go a long way toward creating healthy humans in the future. Students – and all of us, let’s face it – might need some encouragement to form and maintain those friendly relationships and social skills lost over the past four years, but they will pay off in the end.

Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist who writes about education and social issues. Read her blog or email her