WILMINGTON — Solitude and loneliness are often thought of as synonymous but research conducted by Wilmington College’s Dr. Virginia Thomas draws a fascinating distinction in a study she conducted with adolescents and young adults.
Thomas, assistant professor of psychology, concluded that a young person’s motivation for seeking solitude is the key element on whether it not it should be viewed as a healthy choice.
Indeed, she said if teens wish to be alone for reasons such as creative expression, self-reflection or getting some quiet time to recharge, then it is considered a healthy behavior. However, if teens are alone due to punishment or “by default” — a result of having social anxiety, lack of positive relationships or feelings of rejection — that can be a red flag for unhealthy psychological functioning.
The professor, who conducted this research while a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has seen her study featured in recent stories in popular publications like Psychology Today and Science Daily. The original study was published in The Journal of Adolescence in January 2019.
“That’s been unexpected and exciting,” she said.
Thomas holds an interest in identity development of adolescents and emerging adults, and in particular has focused on the developmental capacity for solitude.
“My research interests have always been focused on personality and well-being,” she said. “It’s generally true that social relationships make us healthier, but I wanted to determine when solitude can be a good thing.”
he professor noted that very little previous research had been conducted on the topic.
“If young people are not super social or don’t have a large network of friends, they’re often seen as at-risk or not well adjusted psychologically. But, if their solitude is chosen freely, for constructive purposes such as sorting through their emotions, or thinking about their identities and their futures, then alone time is a healthy move, with no evidence of depression, loneliness or social anxiety,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ research includes a set of 14 questions designed to expose red flags of “maladaptive solitude,” or to confirm the notion, “This kid is seeking solitude for all the right reasons.” She said these questions would provide insight into adolescents’ motivation and could be administered by teachers, social workers or a school psychologist.
Thomas added that, by virtue of her study reaching such a large audience, it should illustrate to her students that research is an important component of one’s education that contributes to greater knowledge in society.
“It shows that there is really a direct link between our everyday experiences and the research their professors do,” she said. “I think it’s impressive for them to see their professors in a new light — to realize that all of us are trained as researchers as well as educators. In fact, learning about their professors’ research might inspire them to go to graduate school and investigate their own questions.”