In the study, published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, the research team has urged policymakers to consider the effects of physical distancing measures introduced to tackle the spread of Covid-19 on young people's social development and wellbeing.
"Owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many young people around the world currently have substantially fewer opportunities to interact face-to-face with peers in their social network at a time in their lives when this is crucial for their development," said study lead author Sarah-Jayne from the University of Cambridge in the UK.
"Even if physical distancing measures are temporary, several months represent a large proportion of a young person's life. We would urge policymakers to give urgent consideration to the wellbeing of young people at this time," Jayne added.
The authors' viewpoint is based on a review of peer-reviewed studies on social isolation and adolescence in animals, the social development of young people (aged 10-24), as well as studies of social media, use in adolescence and mental health.
Key findings from the animal studies looking at severe isolation suggest that even short periods of social isolation during adolescence (in mice or rats) can be associated with substantial and potentially long-term effects in the chemistry and structural development of the brain of these animals.
The authors, however, found few studies into the effects of social isolation on people. There was some evidence that extreme social isolation is associated with increased distress, depression, aggression and self-harm in adults, and these effects may be amplified in younger people, but, such studies have been conducted in situations of much more extreme isolation (such as solitary confinement in prisons) than the reduced social interaction associated with physical distancing.
Other studies suggest that acute social isolation in adult humans results in increased feelings of loneliness, craving for social contact, and decreased happiness, in addition to changes in brain activity.
The authors also note that adolescents' use of digital technologies and social media might mitigate some of the negative effects of physical distancing by helping young people maintain social ties even when they are unable to interact in person.
The authors warned that adolescence is a sensitive period in young people's lives when their social environment and interactions with peers are important for brain development, mental health and developing a sense of self.
They believe that reduced face-to-face social contact with peers may interrupt this and might have long-term detrimental effects.
"Evidence suggests that the type of digital technology and how it is used are important for how beneficial it is to an adolescent's wellbeing," said study researcher Amy Orben.
Further research is urgently needed to understand how depriving young people of social interactions, especially with their peers, affects social development and mental health, the authors wrote.
They concluded that some aspects of digital communication might mitigate the consequences of physical distancing and recommend further research to explore this possibility.