Skip to main content

Different Kinds of Lonely: Dimensions of Isolation and Substance Use in Adolescence

Abstract

Social isolation is broadly associated with poor mental health and risky behaviors in adolescence, a time when peers are critical for healthy development. However, expectations for isolates’ substance use remain unclear. Isolation in adolescence may signal deviant attitudes or spur self-medication, resulting in higher substance use. Conversely, isolates may lack access to substances, leading to lower use. Although treated as a homogeneous social condition for teens in much research, isolation represents a multifaceted experience with structurally distinct network components that present different risks for substance use. This study decomposes isolation into conceptually distinct dimensions that are then interacted to create a systematic typology of isolation subtypes representing different positions in the social space of the school. Each isolated position’s association with cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use is tested among 9th grade students (n = 10,310, 59% female, 83% white) using cross-sectional data from the PROSPER study. Different dimensions of isolation relate to substance use in distinct ways: unliked isolation is associated with lower alcohol use, whereas disengagement and outside orientation are linked to higher use of all three substances. Specifically, disengagement presents risks for cigarette and marijuana use among boys, and outside orientation is associated with cigarette use for girls. Overall, the adolescents disengaged from their school network who also identify close friends outside their grade are at greatest risk for substance use. This study indicates the importance of considering the distinct social positions of isolation to understand risks for both substance use and social isolation in adolescence.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

References

  • Ali, M. M., Amialchuk, A., & Nikaj, S. (2014). Alcohol consumption and social network ties among adolescents: evidence from add health. Addictive Behaviors, 39(5), 918–22.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • An, W., & Mcconnell, W. R. (2015). The origins of asymmetric ties in friendship networks: from status differential to self-perceived centrality. Network Science, 3(2), 269–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ball, B., & Newman, M. E. J. (2013). Friendship networks and social status. Network Science, 1(1), 16–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Balsa, A. I., Homer, J. F., French, M. T., & Norton, E. C. (2010). Alcohol use and popularity: social payoffs from conforming to peers’ behavior. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(3), 559–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bates, D., Mächler, M., Bolker, B., & Walker, S. (2015). Fitting Linear Mixed-Effects Models Using lme4. Journal of Statistical Software, 67(1), 1–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bearman, P. S., & Moody, J. (2004). Suicide and friendships among American adolescents. American Journal of Public Health, 94(1), 89–95.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Branje, S. J. T., Frijns, T., Finkenauer, C., Engels, R., & Meeus., W. (2007). You are my best friend: commitment and stability in adolescents’ same-sex friendships. Personal Relationships, 14(4), 587–603.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cairns, R. B., & Cairns, B. D. (1994). Lifelines and risks: pathways of youth in our time. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Choi, H. J., & Smith., R. A. (2013). Members, isolates, and liaisons: meta-analysis of adolescents’ network positions and their smoking behavior. Substance Use & Misuse, 48(8), 612–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Coleman, J. S. (1961). The adolescent society: the social life of the teenager and its impact on education. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook, S. H., Bauermeister, J. A., Gordon-Messer, D., & Zimmerman., M. A. (2013). Online network influences on emerging adults’ alcohol and drug use. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(11), 1674–86.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Copeland, M., Bartlett, B., & Fisher, J. C. (2017). Dynamic associations of network isolation and smoking behavior. Network Science, 5(3), 257–77.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Cotterell, J. (2007). Social Networks in Youth & Adolescence. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Crosnoe, R. (2011). Fitting in, standing out. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • DeLay, D., Laursen, B., Kiuru, N., Salmela-Aro, K., & Nurmi, J. E. (2013). Selecting and retaining friends on the basis of cigarette smoking similarity. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(3), 464–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • de la Haye, K., Harold, D. G., Pollard, M. S., Kennedy, D. P., & Tucker, J. S. (2014). Befriending risky peers: factors driving adolescents’ selection of friends with similar marijuana use. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(10), 1914–28.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Dishion, T. J., Capaldi, D. M., & Yoerger., K. (1999). Middle childhood antecedents to progressions in male adolescent substance use: an ecological analysis of risk and protection. Journal of Adolescent Research, 14(2), 175–205.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Douvan, E. (1983). Commentary: theoretical perspectives on peer association. In JoyceLevy Epstein & Nancy Karweit eds, Friends in school: patterns of selection and influence in secondary schools (pp. 63–69). New York, NY: Academic Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Ennett, S. T., Karl, E. B., Hussong, A., Faris, R., Foshee, V. A., & Cai, L. (2006). The peer context of adolescent substance use: findings from social network analysis. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 16(2), 159–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ennett, S. T., Faris, R., Hipp, J., Foshee, V. A., Bauman, K. E., Hussong, A., & Cai, L. (2008). Peer smoking, other peer attributes, and adolescent cigarette smoking: a social network analysis. Prevention Science, 9(2), 88–98.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Ennett, S. T., & Bauman, K. E. (1994). The contribution of influence and selection to adolescent peer group homogeneity: the case of adolescent cigarette smoking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(4), 653–63.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Ennett, S. T., & Bauman, K. E. (1996). Adolescent social networks: school, demographic, and longitudinal considerations. Journal of Adolescent Research, 11(2), 194–215.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Epstein, J. L. (1983). Examining theories of adolescent friendships. In JoyceLevy Epstein & Nancy Karweit eds, Friends in school: patterns of selection and influence in secondary schools1 (pp. 39–61). New York, NY: Academic Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Fujimoto, K., & Valente, T. W. (2012). Social network influences on adolescent substance use: disentangling structural equivalence from cohesion. Social Science and Medicine, 74(12), 1952–60.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hall-Lande, J., Eisenberg, M., Christenson, S. L., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2007). Social isolation, psychological health, and protective factors in adolescence. Adolescence, 42(166), 265–286.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, J. A., & Valente, T. W. (2007). Adolescent smoking networks: the effects of influence and selection on future smoking. Addictive Behaviors, 32(12), 3054–59.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Haynie, D. L., & Osgood, D. W. (2005). Reconsidering peers and delinquency: how do peers matter? Social Forces, 84(2), 1109–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heinrich, L. M., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: a literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26(6), 695–718.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Henry, D. B., & Kobus, K. (2007). Early adolescent social networks and substance use. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 27(3), 346–62.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hoffman, B. R., Sussman, S., Unger, J. B., & Valente, T. W. (2006). Peer influences on adolescent cigarette smoking: a theoretical review of the literature. Substance Use & Misuse, 41(1), 103–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Khantzian, E. J. (2003). Understanding addictive vulnerability: an evolving psychodynamic perspective. Neuropsychoanalysis, 5, 5–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kobus, K., & Henry, D. B. (2010). Interplay of network position and peer substance use in early adolescent cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 30(2), 225–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kreager, D. A. (2004). Strangers in the halls: isolation and delinquency in school networks. Social Forces, 83(1), 351–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lakon, C. M., Wang, C., Butts, C. T., Jose, R., Timberlake, D. S., & Hipp, J. R. (2015). A dynamic model of adolescent friendship networks, parental influences, and smoking. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(9), 1767–1786.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Long, J. S., & Freese, J. (2014). Regression models for categorical dependent variables using stata. College Station, TX: Stata Press. Third.

    Google Scholar 

  • McDonough, M. H., Paul, E. J., & Stuart, J. (2016). Bi-directional effects of peer relationships and adolescent substance use: a longitudinal study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(8), 1652–63.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • McFarland, D. A., Moody, J., Diehl, D., Smith, J. A., & Thomas, R. J. (2014). Network ecology and adolescent social structure. American Sociological Review, 79(6), 1088–1121.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Meldrum, R. C., & Barnes, J. C. (2017). Unstructured socializing with peers and delinquent behavior: a genetically informed analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(9), 1968–81.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Moody, J., Wendy, D. B., Osgood, D. W., Feinberg, M., & Gest., S. (2011). Popularity trajectories and substance use in early adolescence. Social Networks, 33(2), 101–12.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Niño, M. D., Cai, T., & Ignatow, G. (2016). Social isolation, drunkenness, and cigarette use among adolescents. Addictive Behaviors, 53, 94–100.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Oelsner, J., Melissa, A. L., & Greenberg, M. T. (2011). Factors influencing the development of school bonding among middle school students. Journal of Early Adolescence, 31(3), 463–87.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Osgood, D. W., et al. (2013). Peers and the emergence of alcohol use: influence and selection processes in adolescent friendship networks. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(3), 500–512.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Osgood, D. W., Feinberg, M. E., Wallace, L. N., & Moody, J. (2014). Friendship group position and substance use. Addictive Behaviors, 39(5), 923–33.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Paik, A., & Sanchagrin, K. (2013). Social isolation in America: an artifact. American Sociological Review, 78(3), 339–60.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pettigrew, J., Miller-Day, M., Krieger, J., & Hecht., M. L. (2012). The rural context of illicit substance offers: a study of Appalachian rural adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 27(4), 523–50.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • R Core Team (2015). R: a language and environment for statistical computing.

  • Ragan, D. T., Osgood, D. W., & Feinberg, MarkE. (2014). Friends as a bridge to parental influence: implications for adolescent alcohol use. Social Forces, 92(3), 1061–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Simons-Morton, B., & Farhat, T. (2010). Recent findings on peer group influences on adolescent substance use. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 31(4), 191–208.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Simons, R. L., Les, B. W., Conger, R. D., & Conger, K. J. (1991). Parenting factors, social skills, and value commitments as precursors to school failure, involvement with deviant peers, and delinquent behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 20(6), 645–64.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, J. A., & Moody, J. (2013). Structural effects of network sampling coverage I: nodes missing at random. Social Networks, 35(4), 652–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, J. A., Moody, J., & Morgan, J. H. (2017). Network sampling coverage II: the effect of non-random missing data on network measurement. Social Networks, 48, 78–99.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Spoth, R., Redmond, C., Clair, S., Shin, C., Greenberg, M., & Feinberg, M. (2011). Preventing substance misuse through community-university partnerships: randomized controlled trial outcomes 4 1/2 years past caseline. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40(4), 440–47.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Spoth, R., Greenberg, M., Bierman, K., & Redmond, C. (2004). PROSPER community-university partnership model for public education systems: capacity-building for evidence-based, competence-building prevention. Prevention Science, 5(1), 31–39.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Spoth, R. L., & Redmond, C. (2002). Project family prevention trials based in community-university partnerships: toward scaled-up preventive interventions. Prevention Science, 3(3), 203–21.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Tani, C. R., Ernest, L. C., & Deffenbacher, J. L. (2001). Peer isolation and drug use among white non-hispanic and mexican american adolescents. Adolescence, 36(141), 127–39.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Tomlinson, K. L., & Brown, S. A. (2012). Self-medication or social learning? a comparison of models to predict early adolescent drinking. Addictive Behaviors, 37(2), 179–86.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Tucker, J. S., Michael, S. P., de la Haye, K., Kennedy, D. P., & Green, H. D. (2013). Neighborhood characteristics and the initiation of marijuana use and binge drinking. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 128(1–2), 83–89.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Umberson, D., Crosnoe, R., & Reczek, C. (2010). Social relationships and health behavior across life course. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 139–57.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Vogel, M., Chris, E. R., McCuddy, T., & Carson, D. C. (2015). The highs that bind: school context, social status and marijuana use. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(5), 1153–64.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Wentzel, K. R., & Asher., S. R. (1995). The academic lives of neglected, rejected, popular, and controversial children. Child Development, 66(3), 754–63.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Wentzel, K. R., Barry, C. M., & Caldwell., K. A. (2004). Friendships in middle school: influences on motivation and school adjustment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 195–203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zweig, J. M., Lindberg, L. D., & McGinley., K. A. (2001). Adolescent health risk profiles: the co-occurrence of health risks among females and males. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30(6), 707–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the members of working groups at PSU and Duke University for their helpful comments. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of study participants and families and the PROSPER staff to the success of this project.

Authors’ Contributions

M.C. wrote the manuscript and contributed to the study design; J.F. conducted analyses and participated in data interpretation and drafting; JM generated the networks; J.M. and M.E.F. conceived of the study and participated in design and revision. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Funding

Grants from the W.T. Grant Foundation (8316), National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01-DA018225), National Science Foundation (1535370), the National Institutes of Health (UL1-TR002240), and National Institute of Child Health and Development (R24-HD041025) supported this research. The analyses used data from PROSPER, a project directed by R. L. Spoth, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (RO1-DA013709) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (AA14702).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Molly Copeland.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

The procurement of the data required for this study was approved by the Iowa State University and Pennsylvania State University institutional review boards

Informed Consent

All youth and families were informed about and consented to participate in this project.

Appendices

Appendix A: Family Relations Scale Items

The scale was constructed by taking the mean of each of the standardized measures, using the grand composite of the four affective quality subscales with one-fourth weight.

Affective quality: 1 = Always or almost always, 2 = Often, 3 = About half the time, 4 = Not very often, 5 = Never or almost never, for “During the past month, how often did…”

  • Your MOM let you know she really cares about you?

  • Your MOM act loving and affectionate toward you?

  • Your MOM let you know that she appreciates you, your ideas, or the things you do?

  • YOU let your mom know you really care about her?

  • YOU act loving and affectionate toward your mom?

  • YOU let your mom know what you appreciate her, her ideas, or the things she does?

  • Your DAD let you know he really cares about you?

  • Your DAD act loving and affectionate toward you?

  • Your DAD let you know that he appreciates you, your ideas, or the things you do?

  • YOU let your dad know you really care about him?

  • YOU act loving and affectionate toward your dad?

  • YOU let your dad know what you appreciate him, his ideas, or the things he does?

Activities with child: 1 = Everyday, 2 = A few times a week, 3 = About once a week, 4 = Two or three times during the past month, 5 = Once during the past month, 6 = Not during the past month, for “During the past month, how often did you…”

  • Work on homework or a school project together with your Mom or Dad?

  • Do something active together with your Mom or Dad?

  • Talk about what’s going on at school with your Mom or Dad?

  • Work on something together around the house with your Mom or Dad?

  • Discuss what you want to do in the future with your Mom or Dad?

  • Do some other fun activity that you both enjoy with your Mom or Dad?

Inductive reasoning: 1 = Always, 2 = Almost always, 3 = Almost half the time, 4 = Almost never, 5 = Never, for “How often?…”

  • My parents give me reasons for their decisions.

  • My parents ask me what I think before making a decision that affects me.

  • When I don’t understand why my parents make a rule for me, they explain the reason.

Appendix B: Robustness Checks and Sensitivity Analyses

Robustness checks in this appendix include models that introduce control variables for the treatment condition in the overall PROSPER intervention, a measure of school adjustment and bonding (scale items shown in conjunction with Table 7 below), and stepwise regression to test whether findings are sensitive to the introduction and order of the sociodemographic control variables used in the main analyses.

Treatment in the PROSPER intervention included randomly selected schools and families participating in a community-university program targeting teen resilience against peer influence to use drugs. Further information about the design and efficacy of the intervention can be found in Osgood et al. (2013) and Spoth et al. (2004). Table 6 shows that including controls for treatment and interacting treatment with the isolation dimensions does not significantly alter any of the findings described in this study.

Table 6 Logistic regression of dimensions of isolation predicting past-month drug use in PROSPER, including treatment condition and interactions between treatment and isolation dimensionsa

Table 7 shows models including school adjustment and bonding. Including this variable significantly changes only one association, attenuating the association between disengagement and alcohol use. This change aligns with the conceptual role of disengaged isolation; for these self-excluding isolates, who do not see themselves as part of the school peer network, detachment from the school environment overall attenuates the observed relationship between alcohol use and disengagement from school peers. This measure is included in a model in these robustness analyses because such measures of affective qualities toward school are traditionally used as controls in tandem with structural peer network measures. However, given the conceptual collinearity of this school bonding measure with one of the isolation dimensions, the structural network focus of models in this study, and our aim of keeping models with several new definitional components reasonably simple, this measure is not included in main analyses.

Table 7 Logistic regression of dimensions of isolation predicting past-month drug use in PROSPER, including school adjustment and bonding

Finally, Tables 810 show stepwise regressions for each substance and the isolation dimensions, where sociodemographic controls used in the models are successively added individually. This process shows that results are robust to the independent introduction of control variables.

Table 8 Stepwise logistic regression of dimensions of isolation predicting past-month cigarette use in PROSPER
Table 9 Stepwise logistic regression of dimensions of isolation predicting past-month marijuana use in PROSPER
Table 10 Stepwise logistic regression of dimensions of isolation predicting past-month alcohol use in PROSPER

School Adjustment and Bonding Scale Items

The school adjustment and bonding scale is the mean of eight items of a validated school bonding scale (Oelsner et al. 2011; Simons et al. 1991), with α = 0.76. Potential responses include 1 = Never true, 2 = Seldom true, 3 = Sometimes true, 4 = Usually true, 5 = Always true, to “True?…”

  • I like school a lot.

  • I try hard at school.

  • Grades are very important to me.

  • School bores me.*

  • I don’t feel like I really belong at school.*

  • I feel very close to at least one of my teachers.

  • I get along well with my teachers.

  • I feel that teachers are picking on me.*

* Indicates items that are reverse-coded.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Copeland, M., Fisher, J.C., Moody, J. et al. Different Kinds of Lonely: Dimensions of Isolation and Substance Use in Adolescence. J Youth Adolescence 47, 1755–1770 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-018-0860-3

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-018-0860-3

Keywords

  • Social Isolation
  • Adolescence
  • Social Networks
  • Substance Use