Loneliness, Affect, and Adolescents’ Appraisals of Company: An Experience Sampling Method Study

Eeske van Roeckel

Loneliness is defined as the negative emotions that arise when a discrepancy is experienced between the desired and actual quantity or quality of social relationships (Perlman & Peplau, 1981). Chronic levels of loneliness can have severe health consequences and are found to increase chances of mortality by as much as 50% (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). Loneliness has been found to be particularly present in adolescents, likely because adolescence is a period in which the transition to high school takes place, peers become increasingly important, and adolescents grow to have greater expectations of their social relationships (Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1999), which may not always be fulfilled. Considering both the serious consequences of loneliness and the high prevalence in early adolescence, it is important to examine factors that can predict or maintain loneliness in adolescence specifically. The main aim of the present study was to test two characteristics of a socio-cognitive model of loneliness (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009) in the daily lives of early adolescents: (a) hypersensitivity to social threat and (b) hyposensitivity to social reward.

Data were collected among 278 early adolescents (Mage = 14.19, 59% female) by using the Experience Sampling Method. The sampling period consisted of 6 days, with 9 assessments per day at random time points. Multilevel analyses were conducted to examine whether loneliness moderated the relation between negative perceptions of company and positive and negative affect (i.e., hypersensitivity to social threat) and positive perceptions of company and affect (i.e., hyposensitivity to social reward).

Support was found for hypersensitivity to social threat, in that adolescents with higher levels of baseline loneliness were more negatively affected by negative perceptions of company. For the hyposensitivity to social reward, results were in contrast with our expectations: adolescents high in loneliness were more positively affected by positive perceptions of company than adolescents low in loneliness. Hence, our findings were indicative of hypersensitivity to both negative and positive environments.

A possible explanation for the difference in findings between the present study and the socio-cognitive model may be that the hyposensitivity to reward comes into play when individuals are chronically lonely or have severe levels of loneliness, which was the case in the study that found support for hyposensitivity (Cacioppo et al., 2009). Our findings are based on a continuous loneliness measure, which does not provide any information about the chronicity of loneliness. This could indicate that transient loneliness levels may serve as a motivational state that encourages people to restore their social relationships, which in turn leads to heightened sensitivity to both positive and negative social environments.

Contact: g.h.van.roekel@umcg.nl

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