The importance of social connection/connectedness for teenage wellbeing
As humans we are a social species and this has historically been crucial for our survival. In today's society social connectedness allows us to experience a sense of belonging to a group of people, cultures or religions (Orben, Tomova, & Blakemore 2020). This feeling of belonging and connection is important as the interpersonal relationships we develop in our lives are formed through our ability to socially connect. We know from research that interpersonal relationships are protective factors and can be a type of “social cure” for many mental health and wellbeing difficulties (Saeri et al., 2018).
Developmentally, adolescents are often seeking to have increasing independence away from the family unit and placing more importance on connecting with peers. However, for some young people navigating a world that is becoming increasingly online and that at times can feel isolating, the importance of social connectedness is becoming more recognised (Clarke, Algoe and Green, 2018). When adolescents feel isolated and/or limited in connectedness, a variety of research shows that they are at increased risk of developing low mood and other mental health challenges (Orben et al., 2020). It is therefore important to recognise adolescents who are struggling with this and to support and encourage development in this area. Schools are in a unique position to identify and support students struggling with social connection as the school environment provides daily opportunities to connect and develop social skills and relationships.
The Circle of Closeness exercise
An exercise based in Interpersonal Therapy (Dietz, 2020) that can be used with adolescents to encourage them to think about their connections is using the Circle of Closeness. This is when the adolescent places themselves in the middle of their circle (life) and identifies the important people in their lives and how close these people feel to them. Having a visual representation of this is helpful to identify how closely they feel connected to those in their life. This exercise enables:
- Conversation around relationships
- Identifying if they would like more/less people within their circle
- Are the people within their circle where they would like them to be? Would they like them to be closer or further away?
This example below shows the important people in ‘John's world’. It shows how close he feels to these people depending on how close or far away he places them to him within the circle. The arrows show the relationship with his uncle is not as close as John would like it to be and therefore opens up the possibility of how John could encourage this to become a closer relationship. John may also decide a goal he would like to set may be to develop more ‘in person’ friendships in his life.
So how do we build social connection?
We cannot ignore the impact that a global pandemic has had on social connectedness. The recent study of March & Moore (2022) showed that the more isolated and alone people felt - because of forced isolation or quarantine - directly predicted reduced engagement in healthy coping behaviours. They also found that one factor that mediated the level of social isolation was the use of social media to remain connected to friends and family. This is an important finding that could be important to consider for international schools and/or international students - suggesting that social media should be accessible and encouraged for connection back to their home country and family.
Teachers, parents and supportive adults are able to support adolescents to develop social connections through a variety of sources, some ideas of developing these could include:
- Groups or activities eg sports teams, music groups
- Peer/friendship groups
- School communities/clubs
- Religious or cultural groups
- Community or volunteer groups
- Family unit
Ultimately, social connection and the sense of belonging it brings supports mental health and lays a foundation for adolescents to thrive. Schools are in a unique position to recognise through observation or data collection the students who need more structured support and encouragement to build social connections. Opportunities for social connection need to be encouraged and supported throughout the teenage years and will be helpful for young people to support their overall health and wellbeing.
About the author
Annalise Olsen is a registered nurse who has worked in specialist mental health services for 17 years, both in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Annalise has worked with a range of age groups and has extensive experience within the adolescent population. Annalise’s treatment modalities include training in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Interpersonal Psychotherapy, role theory and more recently EMDR for trauma.
Passionate about her work, Annalise agreed to contribute to Komodo's library of learning resources to validate the importance of early intervention in the school environment.
- Clark, J. L., Algoe, S. B., & Green, M. C. (2018). Social network sites and well-being: The role of social connection. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(1), 32-37.
- Dietz, L. J. (2020). Family-based interpersonal psychotherapy: an intervention for preadolescent depression. American journal of psychotherapy, 73(1), 22-28.
- Moore, K. A., & March, E. (2022). Socially connected during COVID-19: online social connections mediate the relationship between loneliness and positive coping strategies. Journal of Stress, Trauma, Anxiety, and Resilience (J-STAR), 1(1).
- Orben, A., Tomova, L., & Blakemore, S. J. (2020). The effects of social deprivation on adolescent development and mental health. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 4(8), 634-640.
- Saeri, A. K., Cruwys, T., Barlow, F. K., Stronge, S., & Sibley, C. G. (2018). Social connectedness improves public mental health: Investigating bidirectional relationships in the New Zealand attitudes and values survey. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 52(4), 365-374.