UC Santa Cruz News Center reports that according to new research, teen solitude is not a red flag for depression, as previously believed. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Wilmington College say that choice is the key: imposed solitude, whether as a punishment or as a result of social anxiety, can be problematic. Chosen solitude, though, actually contributes to personal growth and self-acceptance.
"Solitude has gotten a lot of bad press, especially for adolescents who get labeled as social misfits or lonely," said Margarita Azmitia, professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz. "Sometimes, solitude is good. Developmentally, learning to be alone is a skill, and it can be refreshing and restorative."
Many previous studies have confused solitude with loneliness, or sometimes shyness, according to Azmitia. "There's a stigma for kids who spend time alone. They're considered lacking in social skills, or they get labeled 'loners,' " she said. "It's beneficial to know when you need to be alone and when you need to be with others. This study quantifies the benefits of solitude and distinguishes it from the costs of loneliness or isolation."
Virginia Thomas, an assistant psychology professor at Wilmington College, assisted with the Azmitia’s research as a grad student. Thomas explains that when young people choose to be alone, it can provide an opportunity for self-reflection, creative expression, or spiritual renewal. Yet, when solitude is imposed on them, for example, if they don’t attend a social engagement because they feel awkward or don’t have friends, it can be more challenging.
Thomas and Azmitia developed a 14-item survey to unearth respondents’ motivations for solitude. "We got clear results that are pretty reliable indicators of adaptive versus maladaptive solitude," said Thomas. Those with maladaptive solitude are at a greater risk for social anxiety, loneliness, and depression. They also tend to have lower levels of identity development, autonomy, and fewer positive relationships.
"These results increase our awareness that being alone can be restorative and a positive thing," said Thomas. "The question is how to be alone without feeling like we're missing out. For many people, solitude is like exercising a muscle they've never used. You have to develop it, flex it, and learn to use time alone to your benefit.
“Parents can help their children understand that being alone isn't bad. It doesn't mean nobody likes you," said Azmitia. "Solitude can improve the wellbeing of kids who are overstimulated. They can learn to regulate their behavior, on their own, without being told to."
"We need to build our cultural understanding that we don't have to be social all the time," said Azmitia. "Sometimes alone time is good time."