Childhood loneliness as a predictor of adolescent depressive symptoms: an 8-year longitudinal study

Abstract

Childhood loneliness is characterised by children’s perceived dissatisfaction with aspects of their social relationships. This 8-year prospective study investigates whether loneliness in childhood predicts depressive symptoms in adolescence, controlling for early childhood indicators of emotional problems and a sociometric measure of peer social preference. 296 children were tested in the infant years of primary school (T1 5 years of age), in the upper primary school (T2 9 years of age) and in secondary school (T3 13 years of age). At T1, children completed the loneliness assessment and sociometric interview. Their teachers completed externalisation and internalisation rating scales for each child. At T2, children completed a loneliness assessment, a measure of depressive symptoms, and the sociometric interview. At T3, children completed the depressive symptom assessment. An SEM analysis showed that depressive symptoms in early adolescence (age 13) were predicted by reports of depressive symptoms at age 8, which were themselves predicted by internalisation in the infant school (5 years). The interactive effect of loneliness at 5 and 9, indicative of prolonged loneliness in childhood, also predicted depressive symptoms at age 13. Parent and peer-related loneliness at age 5 and 9, peer acceptance variables, and duration of parent loneliness did not predict depression. Our results suggest that enduring peer-related loneliness during childhood constitutes an interpersonal stressor that predisposes children to adolescent depressive symptoms. Possible mediators are discussed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We use criteria of a comparative fit index (CFI) above 0.95, and the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) <0.10 to indicate adequate model fit as suggested elsewhere [62].

  2. 2.

    One potential issue in studies of this nature is that an atypical group of high scorers on both loneliness and depression variables may drive the findings of the analysis. This is a particular issue with the interaction variable, which emphasises the effect of consistently high loneliness scores. To investigate whether a very small number of children were lonely at both time points, but were also very depressed at Time 3, we observed the scattergrams comparing T1 loneliness, T2 loneliness, the interaction term, and the predicted values obtained from a multivariate predictive equation composed of these variables, with T3 depression scores. We found no evidence of correlations being overly influenced by high scorers.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks are extended to Anna Kearney and Peter Fleming for assisting with data collection and input. Thanks also to Lancashire County Council for their help in tracking the children and forwarding consent forms to parents. Also, many thanks to the teachers and children who took part in the study. In addition, we would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their comments and recommendations.

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Correspondence to Pamela Qualter.

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Qualter, P., Brown, S.L., Munn, P. et al. Childhood loneliness as a predictor of adolescent depressive symptoms: an 8-year longitudinal study. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 19, 493–501 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-009-0059-y

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Keywords

  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Longitudinal study
  • Adolescence
  • Transient loneliness
  • Enduring loneliness
  • Chronic loneliness
  • Stability of loneliness
  • Children