Seventeen-year-old Ryan Neale of San Mateo, Calif., was just emerging from a period of withdrawal where he had been “experiencing social burnout and retreating into my own world,” he says, when the coronavirus shutdown brought his life to a grinding halt. He had just started making new friends again. “Suddenly, everything kind of paused. The tricky part for me was that I had a couple of my guy best friends, I had a new girlfriend, and that was it,” Neale says.

After nearly 18 months without school, sports or structure, many teens also are feeling disconnected from peers, resulting in mental health effects caused by loneliness.

In a nationwide survey of more than 1,500 teens and young adults from September 2020 to November 2020, nearly 40 percent reported moderate to severe depression, an increase from 25 percent in two years. Although isolation plays a starring role in this uptick, experts say that strong friendships can serve as a powerful buffer against its negative effects.

Friendships help teens thrive

Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert, has noticed a reciprocal link between relationship issues and mental health struggles in her practice. “The more feelings of disconnection or conflict we experience in our friendships, the more likely we are to develop symptoms of anxiety or depression, [which] can then exacerbate or contribute to peer difficulties. It’s so easy for teens to get trapped in this cycle,” Kirmayer says, adding: “On the flip side, having even just one close friend can really protect us from those negative consequences and make it easier to cope if we are struggling.”

“Friendships tell us that we’re accepted, that we’re liked and that we’re supported,” says Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and author of “Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.” “For teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in this world, our friendships and our relationships are key to telling us that we’re okay and that we belong.”

Social media is a double-edged sword

In many ways, social media has been a lifeline for teens, allowing them to stay in contact while isolated during the pandemic.

Even so, it’s tough for teenagers not to equate their self-worth with how many followers, comments and likes they receive. Take Snapchat, for example, where users’ profiles include a “Snapchat score.” According to the company’s support site, that number is computed by a “super-secret, special equation that combines the number of Snaps you’ve sent and received, the Stories you’ve posted, and a couple other factors.” That’s a lot of pressure for teens. 

Neale says it was hard not to wonder how he measured up against his classmates. “I would go on my phone and check their Snap scores, compare them to my own and just feel horrible. I didn’t need such concrete evidence to reinforce my insecurities,” he says.

“One of the things that really affects teenagers is comparison and worrying about how you fit in. There’s no place where that is more in your face than [when you’re] scrolling through Instagram or TikTok all day long,” says Smiley Poswolsky, a friendship expert and author of “Friendship in the Age of Loneliness: An Optimist’s Guide to Connection.” “These apps are designed to be very addictive, very extractive, take [up] a bunch of our time and make us think that we’re getting the dopamine that we need. But they’re actually not really fulfilling us on a deeper, meaningful level.”

Poswolsky recommends that parents ask their teens questions to help them gauge what value social media brings to their lives. “What does it feel like to break a Snapchat streak or to feel the constant need to respond to everyone’s DMs?” Poswolsky says. “Do you feel content, happy and excited about your life? Or do you feel a lack of self-worth and anxiety?”

Take it offline

As school and other activities resume, it’s finally becoming possible for teens to connect in person again, and that’s a good thing. Screens are a much less rich way to connect than through in-person interaction, Kirmayer says. “We tend to be a little bit less disclosing online, . . . and we know that active self-disclosure and vulnerability are so crucial to feeling connected to our friends,” she says. 

That’s not to say that teens should give up social media altogether. Instead, they should put more emphasis on getting together in real life. “For many, eye contact can be so powerful at helping us feel seen, and feeling like someone really sees us is an important part of all relationships,” Nelson says. “We want to feel important. We want to feel like somebody recognizes us, that they know us,” and that happens best through face-to-face interaction. 

Kirmayer says it’s important for teens to start small and accept where they’re at. “It has been a long time since a lot of teens have seen their friends face-to-face. The reality is that it might feel strange, it might feel awkward, and we might feel out of practice,” she says. “But that doesn’t say or mean anything about us as a person or as a friend.”

Try new ways to reconnect

As parents, it’s important to model healthy friendships for our teens; the more we reach out to initiate plans, the more willing our teens will be to do the same, Kirmayer says. It’s also key to be open about our feelings. “If you’re uncomfortable about reentering social gatherings yourself, disclose that to your teen. It really helps to normalize the feeling of disconnection that so many people have experienced,” she says.

Children have changed in the past year. They will have to find new ways to connect with old and new friends. Creating something new together almost always encourages friendships to blossom, Poswolsky says. Whether it’s a blog, podcast, theater production or event, any experience where teens can get to know each other works. “You go deep pretty quickly,” he says. “You’re probably all trying something new, so you’re overcoming fears and being vulnerable with each other. It’s a real ripe place for friendship to thrive.”

Make an effort

We’re all a little rusty socially, and it’s easy to put up walls, but making an effort to be warm and welcoming toward others will go a long way in cultivating new friendships, Nelson says. “The most powerful presence we can have is to be somebody who shows up and says: ‘I’m going to be warm to people. I’m going to smile at people. I’m going to affirm people. I’m going to say hi to people. I’m going to do what I can to make other people feel good being in my presence,’ ” Nelson says. “It sounds easy, but it can be a hard thing to do when we are feeling insecure or scared or lonely. But one of the most important things we can do is to be the person that doesn’t make everybody else feel judged. If we can be that safe, warm place, we will have friends. People want to be around us.”

As schools start to reopen, Neale is looking forward to cultivating relationships that are genuine. “I’m ready to go back to real interaction,” he says.

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