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Correlates of loneliness among Midwestern adolescents.

Loneliness is one of the most pervasive of human experiences, yet it is very difficult to define. Medora and Woodward (1986) defined it as a response to the absence of an adequate positive relationship to persons, places, or things. Peplau and Perlman (1982) referred to loneliness as the psychological state that results from discrepancies between one's desire and one's actual relationships. According to Rook (1984), "loneliness is defined as an enduring condition of emotional distress that arises when a person feels estranged from, misunderstood, or rejected by others and/or lacks appropriate social partners for desired activities, particularly activities that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy".

Few adolescents escape the pain of loneliness. In fact, many theorists and investigators suggest that loneliness is widespread and especially intense during adolescence (Brennan, 1982; Gaev, 1976; Weiss, 1973; Woodward, 1988; Woodward & Frank, 1988). According to Woodward (1988), adolescence is frequently characterized by alienation, solitude, loneliness, and distress.

The importance of loneliness in the study of affective disorders among adolescents cannot be overemphasized. It has been linked to drug abuse and alcoholism (Pittel, 1971), adolescent delinquency (Brennan & Auslander, 1979), and suicide (Diamant & Windholz, 1981; Trout, 1980).

Sullivan (1953) theorized that loneliness is an integral component of all psychopathology, and that the struggle to find relief from loneliness is a central motivating factor in much of human behavior. Fromm-Reichmann (1959) asserted that understanding loneliness will lead to a better understanding of the etiology of most mental illnesses.

A review of the literature suggests that loneliness is correlated with numerous variables. Beck (1967) reported that feelings of loneliness, sadness, and apathy were significantly related to depression in the subjects he studied. The relationship between loneliness and depression has been substantiated with adolescents (Moore & Schultz, 1983) and college students (Anderson & Arnoult, 1985; Anderson & Harvey, 1988; Ouellet & Joshi, 1986; Rich & Bonner, 1987; Wilbert & Rupert, 1986).

A number of studies have documented that loneliness is negatively related to self-esteem among adolescents (Brennan, 1982; Woodward & Frank, 1988), and one documented this relationship with college students (Goswick & Jones, 1981). Lonely people frequently feel worthless, incompetent, and unlovable.

The relationship between loneliness and family strengths has not specifically been examined among adolescents. Goswick and Jones (1981) reported that one variable implicated in the experience of loneliness among college students, but not among high school subjects, was parental disinterest. Brennan and Auslander (1979) identified family; school, and peer settings as the major variables associated with loneliness and interpersonal dissatisfaction among adolescents.

The relationship between loneliness and parent-adolescent communication has not been substantiated. However, Mahon (1982) and Franzoi and Davis (1985) found an inverse relationship between self-disclosure and loneliness among adolescents.

Several studies with adolescent subjects have found a significant negative relationship between age and loneliness (Mahon, 1983; Woodward, 1988). Brennan and Auslander (1979), however, reported no appreciable relationship between the two variables.

Numerous investigators have examined loneliness and gender among adolescents. Females have reported substantially higher loneliness scores than males (Brennan & Auslander, 1979; Medora & Woodward, 1986; Woodward & Frank, 1988).

To date, only a limited number of studies have empirically examined the nature of loneliness in adolescent populations; much of the available data on loneliness concerns college students. Thus, the present study was designed to extend this line of inquiry to midwestern adolescents.


The first objective was to investigate the extent to which loneliness was experienced by adolescents attending public schools in four midwestern communities. A second objective was to investigate whether there was a difference in loneliness scores for the sample under investigation and those in previous studies with various populations. The third objective was to determine whether there was a difference in loneliness scores between male and female subjects. The final objective was to systematically examine loneliness in relation to depression, self-esteem, family strengths, parent-adolescent communication, and age of the adolescents.

Hypotheses Tested

1. There is a significant difference in loneliness scores between male and female adolescents.

2. Loneliness among midwestern adolescents is significantly related to: (a) depression, (b) self-esteem, (c) family strengths, (d) father-adolescent communication, (e) mother-adolescent communication, and (f) age.



The convenience sample consisted of 156 adolescents attending junior and senior high schools in four midwestern communities. The subjects included 62 males and 94 females between the ages of 11 and 18; mean age was 14 (SD = 1.56). Most of the subjects were white, Protestant or Catholic, and lower-middle to middle class.


Loneliness Inventory. Woodward's (1988) Loneliness Inventory (Short Form) is a 10-item inventory which measures loneliness under varied conditions and circumstances. Response alternatives are scored on a 5-point rating scale, which ranges from almost always to never. The higher the score on the Loneliness Inventory, the higher the adolescent's assessment of loneliness. The sum of the responses is divided by the number of questions answered to determine the mean loneliness score. Convergent validity of .97 was established by correlating the Loneliness Inventory with a self-rating measure of loneliness (Woodward & Frank, 1988). Good internal consistency was found, as evidenced by a coefficient alpha of .96 with a sample of 387 respondents ranging in age from 8 to 20 years (Woodward & Frank, 1988). In the present study, the coefficient alpha was .74.

Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale for Children (CES-DC). The CES-DC is a 20-item questionnaire appropriate for studies of the epidemiology of depressive symptomatology in the general population (Weissman, Orvaschel, & Padian, 1980). Cognitive, affective, behavioral, and somatic symptoms associated with depression are assessed by 16 items, and positive affect is assessed by 4 items. For each item, respondents indicate the frequency or duration with which they have experienced a specific feature during the preceding week on a scale from 0 to 3. Higher scores indicate greater symptomatology. Concurrent validity of .44 (p |is less than~ .005) was established by comparing scores on the Children's Depression Inventory to CES-DC scores (Faulstich, Carey, Ruggiero, Enyart, & Gresham, 1986). A Cronbach's alpha of .84 for the CES-DC was found for a sample of 148 respondents ranging in age from 8 to 17 (Faulstich et al., 1986). An alpha coefficient of .88 was obtained in the present study.

Rosenberg's Self-Esteem Scale (RSE). Self-esteem was measured by Rosenberg's (1965) Self-Esteem Scale. The RSE is a 10-item, 5-point rating scale that measures adolescents' attitudes toward the self. Positively and negatively worded items are included in the scale in order to reduce the possibility of a response set. When five items on this inventory are reverse scored, higher scores indicate higher perceptions of self-esteem. A significant correlation of .60 was found between the RSE and Coopersmith's Self-Esteem Inventory (Crandell, 1974). Test-retest reliability of the RSE over two weeks was .85 among adolescents (Silber & Tippett, 1965). Rosenberg (1965) also reported a Guttman scale reliability coefficient of .92 among adolescents. The coefficient alpha was .85 in the present study.

Family Strengths Inventory. The Family Strengths Inventory is a 12-item, 5-point rating scale which measures the extent to which families are able to cope with the inevitable problems and conflicts that arise in family living (Olson, Larsen, & McCubbin, 1982). The higher the score, the higher the perceived family strengths. Olson et al. (1982) reported that construct validity was obtained through factor analysis with varimax rotation (N = 2,740). The Cronbach's alpha was .83, and the test-retest reliability coefficient was .58 among their sample of adolescents and young adults. In the present study, the coefficient alpha was .79.

Parent-Adolescent Communication Inventory. The Parent-Adolescent Communication Inventory is a 20-item self-report questionnaire which measures both positive and negative aspects of parent-adolescent communication (Barnes & Olson, 1982). A 5-point Likert format is used to rate each item. Adolescents are asked to respond first as to how the item relates to their interactions with their mothers and then how it relates to their interactions with their fathers. Higher scores reflect greater perceptions of parent-adolescent communication. Construct validity was obtained through factor analysis with varimax rotation (N= 1,841). Factor loading suggested the use of items that reflected both positive and negative aspects of communication. Barnes and Olson (1982) reported that Cronbach's alpha for the total scale was .88 among subjects ranging in age from 16 to 20 years. In the present study, the alpha reliability coefficients for the Mother-Adolescent Communication Inventory and Father-Adolescent Communication Inventory were .84 and .73, respectively.


The basic design of the study consisted of cross-sectional sampling of the population using a written questionnaire for data collection. A letter explaining the purpose of the study and parental and adolescent consent forms were mailed to potential participants. Instructions specified that adolescents' responses would be kept confidential. Students were administered the questionnaire at school. It consisted of the instruments and demographic items.

Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients and t tests were used to analyze the data. The .05 level of significance was used for testing the hypotheses.


The subjects attained a mean loneliness score of 2.59. Woodward and his associates reported that loneliness scores in their previous sixteen studies ranged from .78 to 2.99 (on a scale from 0 to 4). For purposes of comparison, the adolescents in the present study were found to be the fourth loneliest group; only urban senior high school girls, rural Nebraska adolescents, and rural gifted adolescents were found to be lonelier (Woodward & Kalyan-Masih, 1990).

The female adolescents' mean loneliness score was 2.55 (SD = .57) and the males' mean score was 2.64 (SD = .57). This difference was not significant.

Of the independent variables examined, depression was most highly correlated with loneliness (r = .646, p |is less than~ .001). A statistically significant relationship was found between loneliness and self-esteem (r = -.482, p |is less than~ .001). Lower self-esteem scores suggested greater loneliness. Loneliness was negatively related to family strengths (r = -.276, p |is less than~ .001) and mother-adolescent communication (r = -.252, p |is less than~ .01). However, there was no significant correlation between loneliness and father-adolescent communication. Older adolescents were lonelier (r = .227, p |is less than~ .01) than younger adolescents.


The findings presented are tentative because a convenience sample was utilized in this study. They also should be interpreted cautiously since the basic design of the investigation consisted of cross-sectional sampling of the population.

It was found that the midwestern adolescent respondents were lonely, as evidenced by a mean loneliness score of 2.59. Researchers have shown that adolescents are at higher risk of experiencing loneliness than many other populations, including the elderly (Medora & Woodward, 1986; Woodward, 1988; Woodward & Frank, 1988).

The finding that there was no significant difference in the loneliness scores of male and female adolescents contrasted with those of Brennan and Auslander (1979), Medora and Woodward (1986), and Woodward and Frank (1988), who reported that females were lonelier than males. Additional studies should examine how loneliness is influenced by gender among adolescents.

A major finding was that loneliness was significantly related to adolescent depression, as has been consistently noted in previous research. Lonely people often harbor feelings of depression, sadness, and lethargy (Brage, 1990).

In the current study, loneliness was inversely related to self-esteem. This is in agreement with the findings of Goswick and Jones (1981) and Woodward and Frank (1988). According to Peplau, Miceli, and Morasch (1982), low self-esteem is often embedded in an interrelated set of self-defeating cognitions and behaviors that impair social competence and increase the risk for loneliness.

There was a significant negative relationship between loneliness and family strengths. Goswick and Jones (1981) reported similar findings among their sample of college students.

In addition, loneliness was inversely related to mother-adolescent communication. However, loneliness was not associated with father-adolescent communication. Future studies should examine how loneliness is influenced by parent-adolescent communication to determine whether the current findings can be replicated.

Older adolescents were lonelier than younger adolescents. This finding could be explained by the fact that as adolescents become older, they may experience greater social isolation.


The findings suggest the need for assessment and treatment of loneliness among adolescents. According to Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Emery (1979), cognitive therapy is an effective approach to treatment; adolescents can be encouraged to modify dysfunctional beliefs and self-defeating thought patterns. Interventions should also foster social support as well as feelings of self-confidence and competency in social interaction and problem solving. Stokes (1985) contends that adolescents with a supportive network tend to be less lonely, because such networks provide a sense of community and belonging. Counselors, educators, and health care professionals should collaborate to design programs on interpersonal problem solving and social skills training to help adolescents learn how to obtain support from one another and family members.

Further research is needed with larger random samples of adolescents from diverse backgrounds. Longitudinal studies are also warranted to determine whether the factors involved in adolescent loneliness change over time.


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Author:Brage, Diane; Meredith, William M.; Woodward, John
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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