Summary: Children who experience loneliness before the age of 12 are more likely to experience stress in early adulthood which leads to an increased risk of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
Source: Arizona State University
Before the pandemic, over 1 in 10 children aged 10-12 years reported being lonely.
New research has shown that experiencing loneliness as a pre-adolescent child predicts problem drinking years later, in early adulthood.
Alcohol misuse is not the only health problem connected to loneliness. In older adults, loneliness contributes to poor physical health, including dementia, heart disease and stroke.
Researchers from Arizona State University examined the effects of experiencing childhood loneliness on current stress levels and drinking behaviors in young adults. The study will be published in Addictive Behaviors Reports.
“In young adults, childhood loneliness before age 12 was associated with perceived stress right now and affected dysregulated drinking,” said Julie Patock-Peckham, assistant research professor in the ASU Department of Psychology.
Because stress affects whether people drink to excess, especially women, the research team tested whether past experiences with loneliness impacted the stress people feel today.
Over 300 college students participated in the study, completing assessments of childhood loneliness, current stress levels and drinking behaviors. Feeling lonely in the past was related to present-day stress levels and drinking behaviors.
Higher levels of loneliness before age 12 predicted more stress in early adulthood that was associated with greater alcohol use and alcohol-related problems.
“The data used in this study were collected before the pandemic, and the findings suggest that we could have another public health crisis on our hands in a few years as today’s children grow up,” Patock-Peckham said.
“We need more research into whether mitigating childhood loneliness could be a way to disrupt the pathways that lead to alcohol use disorders in adults. Combating childhood loneliness should help to reduce impaired control over drinking, especially among women.”
This study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Burton Family Foundation. The research team also consisted of Sophia Berbian and Kiana Guarino, undergraduate students at ASU; Tanya Gupta, a recent graduate of the psychology doctoral program; and Federico Sanabria and Frank Infurna, associate professors of psychology.
About this psychology and neurodevelopment research news
Does loneliness before the age of twelve indirectly affect impaired control over drinking, alcohol use, and problems through perceived stress?
Loneliness is the pain of feeling socially isolated from others (Russell et al., 1980). The Stress-Dampening Hypothesis (Marlatt, 1987; Sayette, 1993; Sher, 1987) posits that individuals drink to alleviate negative affect. To date, it has not been determined whether loneliness experienced as a child can indirectly influence at-risk patterns of alcohol use through the mediating mechanism of stress and impaired control. Impaired control over alcohol use (IC) is the difficulty adhering to one’s own self-proscribed limits on drinking behaviors (Heather et al., 1993). Impaired control is an at-risk pattern of use that is particularly relevant to emerging adults.
Methods: We examined the direct and indirect relationships between childhood loneliness, stress, IC, and alcohol-related problems with a structural equation model. In a college student sample, we utilized a (k = 20,000) bootstrap technique and a model indirect command in Mplus to examine potential mediational pathways. Cisgender sex was included as a covariate.
Results: Loneliness was directly linked to stress as well as to alcohol-related problems. Higher levels of loneliness were indirectly linked to both more alcohol use and alcohol-related problems through more stress and in turn, more impaired control over drinking.
Conclusions: The current study is consistent with the Stress Dampening Hypothesis (Marlatt, 1987; Sayette, 1993; Sher, 1987). Our findings suggest that therapeutic interventions combating loneliness in childhood may disrupt the stress-dampening pathway to dysregulated alcohol use in emerging adulthood.