The opportunities and pitfalls of increasing formal youth mentoring program efforts to address loneliness

Keller, T. E., Perry, M., & Spencer, R. (2020). Reducing Social Isolation Through Formal Youth Mentoring: Opportunities and Potential Pitfalls. Clinical Social Work Journal, 48(1), 35–45.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Although research primarily examines the impact of loneliness and social isolation on the aging population, not many scholars examine how they affect young people.
  • Social isolation is often associated with depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, abuse, and suicide attempts.
  • This study explores whether or not intergenerational relationships can serve as a protective factor against social isolation and loneliness through formal youth mentoring programs.
  • This study also assesses the opportunities and pitfalls of increasing youth mentoring efforts to address youth loneliness.
  • Focusing more time on addressing youth loneliness will provide mentoring programs an opportunity to modify their practices, so there will be an increased emphasis on developing stronger youth-adult relationships.
  • Reducing the social isolation of youths can strengthen people’s sense of community by fostering mentoring relationships between individuals of diverse backgrounds. More specifically, it can help broaden mentors’ and mentees’ social networks.
  • It’s important to keep in mind that mentoring relationships are complex and multifaceted. It cannot be a simple solution to everything.
  • Although many mentoring programs say that they are youth-centered, some of them still have a hard time prioritizing youths over privileged adults.
  • Steering youth mentoring programs to address youth social isolation will require engagement among researchers, practitioners, program leaders, and policy-makers.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Many young people experience social isolation and loneliness, which can have adverse effects on physical and psychological well-being. We propose that intergenerational relationships created through formal youth mentoring programs have the potential to reduce the social isolation of young people. Mentoring programs also enable adult volunteers to form new interpersonal connections. In addition, mentoring offers the possibility of strengthening the fabric of communities through engagement and interaction among participants from different social, racial, and economic backgrounds. Mentoring program goals, often influenced by sponsor priorities, rarely focus specifically on reducing social isolation and promoting human connections as primary outcomes, but shifting to this emphasis could promote greater attention to relational practice that prioritizes the inherent value of the mentoring relationship itself. Given the long history and widespread popularity of formal youth mentoring, we suggest the field offers practice expertise, research knowledge, and organizational infrastructure as a foundation for addressing social isolation among young people. However, we also caution that youth mentoring, as a relationship-based intervention, poses potential risks if not implemented well. Issues concerning power, ethics, and social justice need to be made explicit to ensure the support of intergenerational relationships that reduce rather than reproduce social patterns of oppression, stigmatization, and inequality.

Implications (Reprinted from the Conclusion)

Young people and adults are susceptible to perceived social isolation and loneliness and the associated negative consequences for physical and psychological health (Hall-Lande et al. 2007; Laursen and Hartl 2013). The prevalence and seriousness of perceived social isolation and loneliness makes its reduction a central challenge of clinical practice and the social work profession (Heinrich and Gullone 2006; Lubben et al. 2015). Addressing social isolation among both young people and adults will require a concerted effort to develop and implement effective interventions on a large, nationwide scale. The broad network of established youth development programs holds promise for creating meaningful social connections among youth and adults (Grossman and Bulle 2006). We contend that formal youth mentoring offers practice expertise, research knowledge, and organizational infrastructure as a foundation for addressing social isolation among young people. Beyond engaging in caring relational interactions, youth and adults can also actively support the expansion of one another’s social networks (Keller and Blakeslee 2014). Furthermore, intergenerational mentoring is a relationship-based strategy that may help to reduce the social isolation of adults, particularly when older adults benefit from engaging in the mentoring role (Larkin et al. 2005; Rogers and Taylor 1997).

We acknowledge that mentoring is not a panacea or easy solution for addressing social isolation or any other societal issue (Rhodes and DuBois 2006). We are aware that very little research has investigated the effects of youth mentoring on loneliness or social isolation, so mentoring is not yet an empirically supported intervention for social isolation. Nevertheless, concepts of mentoring are embedded in ancient, indigenous teachings on balancing communal and individual wellness (Baxter et al. 2016; Brendtro et al. 1990). Responsibly employing youth mentoring as a strategy to combat social isolation will require a concerted effort on the part of policy-makers, researchers, program leaders, and practitioners. Policy-makers in government agencies and private foundations can prioritize the eradication of social isolation as a valued goal for youth mentoring and recognize that effective mentoring programs require investment in adequate staffing, training, and infrastructure to reinforce dimensions of relational practice at all levels of organizational decision-making (Garringer et al. 2016). Similarly, policy-makers might invest in research to analyze elements of mentoring interactions most successful in reducing loneliness within specific settings. Mentoring researchers could advance understanding by regularly including assessments of perceived social isolation and loneliness in their studies. Likewise, studies could routinely report indicators of the nature and quality of mentoring relationships to build a base of knowledge about the conditions under which more meaningful connections are established.

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