Intergenerational tech tensions: half of British teens believe tech makes them feel less lonely, but only a quarter of their parents agree

1 May 2019

UCLan researcher only academic to work on national survey

  • Traditional issues (money, trust, friendships and shyness) are the top causes of teenage loneliness rather than technology-led factors
  • 1 in 10 teenagers said that social media and the internet has made them feel unhappy about themselves but two thirds of teenagers (64%) have never had a negative experience when using technology
  • 70% of parents worry about their children’s use of tech, but only a minority (30%) of parents surveyed use protection controls and software
  • 41% of parents have never discussed loneliness with their teenagers so TalkTalk has partnered with Internet Matters to develop advice and support for parents on how to start a dialogue with young people on this sensitive topic

Half of teens in the UK (48%) think that social media and the internet makes them feel less lonely while only a quarter (26%) of their parents agree.

According to TalkTalk’s Teenage Loneliness and Technology Report, which Research Fellow from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) Dr Rebecca Nowland provided expert opinion on and completed some analyses of the data, there is a stark divide within families over the role technology can play in either improving or worsening feelings of loneliness in teenagers.

The study, which looks into both parents and their own teenagers’ attitudes to technology and loneliness, interviewed more than 2,000 young people aged 13-16 years old and more than 2,000 parents of the same teenagers.

The study found teenagers were far more optimistic than their parents about the positive impact of technology. Half (51%) of 13-16 year olds said that during times when they have felt lonely, technology has also provided a solution to their loneliness: they have made new friends, received support and advice, and received positive comments while being online. However, worryingly of the teenagers that did feel lonely, just under a third (31%) admitted to not having discussed their feelings with anyone.

Startlingly, across the UK, parents felt lonelier than their teenage children – which may be impacting how they advise and talk to their children about the issue. 28% of parents said they felt lonely often, always or some of the time, compared to 21% of young people.

"I am heartened to see that technology can, in many cases, help tackle feelings of loneliness in young people."

Traditional issues still driving youth loneliness

Notably, the top four causes of youth loneliness, according to both parents and teenagers, were issues relating to money, trust, friendships and shyness. This suggests that traditional economic and social issues are the main factors driving loneliness among teenagers, while digital technology-led issues linked to the online world contribute less.

The top four main contributors to teenage loneliness according to parents and teenagers:

  • Not being able to take part in friends’ activities because they are too expensive
  • Not being able to talk openly with others
  • Not having friends that can be relied on
  • Prohibitive cost of gadgets and fashion

Tristia Harrison CEO of TalkTalk commented: “I am heartened to see that technology can, in many cases, help tackle feelings of loneliness in young people. It is also clear  that open and regular communication between parents and their teenagers on this topic cannot be underestimated.

“As CEO and a parent of teenage children, I’m proud that TalkTalk has a long history of leading efforts to ensure the internet is a safer place. But as the technology constantly evolves, it presents new issues and challenges. As an industry, we must continually reassess what more we can be doing to understand and mitigate online risks, so our young people have the best possible experience online.”

Dr Nowland is the only academic to work on the project. She was consulted with regarding the design of the survey and analyses of the data, reviewed the raw data and used her extensive expertise to provide guidance and expert opinion on the findings.

She said: “The impacts of technology on loneliness may not be the same for each generation. New social technologies are important for young people to connect with their friends.

“The survey findings show that teenagers see social digital technologies as a way to reduce loneliness. Although, parents are able to see the positives of young people’s technology use, there is still a digital divide between the generations. Worries for parents centre on not feeling equipped or having sufficient knowledge to keep youth safe online.”

Dr Rebecca Nowland
Dr Rebecca Nowland

"By being in tune with their child's digital life, parents can feel empowered to help them take advantage of all the opportunities that the online world has to offer."

Parents don’t know how to engage with their teenagers’ tech experience

The report reveals that most parents (70%) worry about their teenagers’ use of technology. Yet over a third (37%) felt ill-equipped or are simply unsure how to help manage or navigate their teenagers’ tech and online use safely. This lack of confidence is leading to inaction among parents towards their teenagers’ safe use of the internet.

Surprisingly, despite parents’ concerns, the report found that:

  • 41% have never discussed feelings of loneliness with their teenage children
  • Over two thirds of parents (70%) do not use parent protection controls and software
  • 76% do not approve apps and websites before their children use them
  • 65% do not limit the hours their teenager spends using technology and social media

CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting said: "The research reiterates how teenagers don't differentiate between their online and offline world and they turn to devices to help them feel connected and supported.

"By being in tune with their child's digital life, parents can feel empowered to help them take advantage of all the opportunities that the online world has to offer.

"Having regular, open and honest conversations and getting to grips with the tech they're using, is the easiest way for parents to create an effective and positive online environment for their children."

Tech for good or bad?

The report found that a third (36%) of teenagers said that they have experienced a time when technology has had a negative effect on them. Loneliness caused by not having many friends on social media was cited by 12% of teenagers.

The study however found that parents recognised the positive social impact technology and the internet could have on their teenage children. Two thirds (67%) of parents said that their teenage child had told them about positive experiences using technology – a figure that jumps to over three quarters (77%) according to young people themselves.

In addition, a third (33%) of parents said their teenagers’ use of technology and the internet had improved social skills, 27% believed it helped teenage children make friends and a further 19% said it helped their teenager overcome anxieties when talking to friends.

Call to action: TalkTalk is working on the following initiatives to help parents and young people harness the benefits of technology.

  • TalkTalk is working with Internet Matters to help guide parents keep their children safe online.
  • Our parental filter, HomeSafe, allows parents to control what content their children access. The packaging on TalkTalk’s new routers’ (the Wi-Fi Hub) signposts to Internet Matters, reminding parents that support is available on online safety
  • TalkTalk has signed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Employer Pledge on loneliness which is a statement of action to prevent loneliness at work for employees