Internalizing Problems in Adolescence: Linking Loneliness, Social Anxiety Symptoms, and Depressive Symptoms Over Time

  • Sofie DanneelEmail author
  • Stefanie Nelemans
  • Annette Spithoven
  • Margot Bastin
  • Patricia Bijttebier
  • Hilde Colpin
  • Wim Van Den Noortgate
  • Karla Van Leeuwen
  • Karine Verschueren
  • Luc Goossens


Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to experiencing loneliness, social anxiety symptoms, and depressive symptoms. These internalizing problems often co-occur but, until now, it remains unclear how they are associated over time. Insight in these temporal sequences is important to enhance our understanding of how internalizing problems arise and may reinforce each other over time. To examine these temporal sequences, three samples of adolescents were used: Sample 1 consisted of 1,116 adolescents (48.97% girls, Mage = 13.59), Sample 2 of 1,423 adolescents (52.42% girls, Mage = 13.79), and Sample 3 of 549 adolescents (62.66% girls, Mage = 14.82). Adolescents filled out well-established self-report measures of loneliness, social anxiety symptoms, and depressive symptoms during regular school hours at three measurement occasions with a 1-year interval. Meta-analytic techniques were used to estimate the average true effects across three-variable autoregressive cross-lagged models in the three samples. In addition, indirect effects and gender differences in the temporal associations were explored in all three samples. The results suggest that social anxiety symptoms play a crucial role as potential antecedent of emerging feelings of loneliness and depression in adolescence. In addition, in line with theoretical expectations, our results suggest the presence of a vicious cycle between adolescents’ feelings of loneliness and social anxiety symptoms. The indirect effects were inconsistent across samples and no gender differences were found. These findings shed more light on the unique temporal relationships among different internalizing problems. Clinical interventions should target social anxiety symptoms to prevent feelings of loneliness and vice versa.


Loneliness Social anxiety symptoms Depressive symptoms Temporal sequence Adolescence 



This study was funded by Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) (Grant number: G.0565.15N).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sofie Danneel
    • 1
    Email author
  • Stefanie Nelemans
    • 2
  • Annette Spithoven
    • 1
  • Margot Bastin
    • 1
  • Patricia Bijttebier
    • 1
  • Hilde Colpin
    • 1
  • Wim Van Den Noortgate
    • 3
  • Karla Van Leeuwen
    • 4
  • Karine Verschueren
    • 1
  • Luc Goossens
    • 1
  1. 1.School Psychology and Development in Context Research GroupKU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Research Centre Adolescent DevelopmentUtrecht UniversityUtrechtthe Netherlands
  3. 3.Methodology of Educational SciencesKU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  4. 4.Parenting and Special Education Research GroupKU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium

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