Belongingness and the modern schoolchild: on loneliness, socioemotional health, self-esteem, evolutionary mismatch, online sociality, and the numbness of rejection

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Australian Journal of Psychology


The need to belong resonates widely as a fundamental motivation to maintain close, continual human bonds. This commentary integrates findings and conclusions from the special issue of the Australian Journal of Psychology focused on belongingness and loneliness. Deficient belongingness, including specifically belonging in schools, is linked to high loneliness, low well-being, poor adjustment, low covitality (socioemotional health), impaired sleep, and other problems. Several advances in belongingness theory are highlighted, including a focus on opportunity as well as motivation and the sociometer theory. We then consider modern belongingness problems in the context of mismatch between the evolutionary past (that shaped the need to belong) and modern schools’ social environment. In contrast to the hunter-gatherers’ social world, modern schoolchildren encounter far more people, including strangers. There is much more turnover in relationships, so the continuation of social bonds is contingent rather than assumed. Different social competencies are needed, such as self-promotion to make good first impressions. Children more routinely spend time with others of different races and genders–but also spend much more time with same-age peers (so the child is shaped and socialised by peers). The modern online environment also offers new and unfolding opportunities and problems for belonging. KEY POINTS (1) Belongingness in schools is important for wellbeing outcomes in school children (2) Belongingness problems in school might reflect an evolutionary mismatch (3) Child exposure to more people, including strangers, might contribute to lower belongingness (4) New social competencies should be developed to help children relate and belong in school (5) Advances in online technologies can hinder but also enhance belongingness.

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