It’s widely known that loneliness is a feeling experienced by many older people, but there is less awareness that significant numbers of young people also suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness.
In fact, research suggests that children and young people are the group that is most susceptible to this damaging emotion. (Different organisations have different definitions for what they mean by the terms ‘children and young people’. For the purposes of this pack, children are defined as 17 and younger, while young people are young adults aged 18 to 24.)
Research conducted this year by the charity Relate compared loneliness in different age groups, ranging from 16-24 to those over 65. They found it was the youngest age group, 16 to 24-year-olds, who were most likely to experience loneliness.
And according to the Loneliness Experiment conducted by the BBC and the Wellcome Collection in 2018, in which 55,000 people participated, 40 per cent of people aged 16 to 24 admitted to feeling lonely often or very often.
In October 2018, the UK government announced a strategy to tackle loneliness in England, along with dedicated funding to help communities build stronger connections and alleviate loneliness. At the same time the Office for National Statistics (ONS) worked with a panel of experts to recommend a set of questions to help measure loneliness. Its report, National Measurement of Loneliness: 2018, corroborated Relate’s findings that young people are more likely to feel lonely than people of any other age group.
What is loneliness?
So, what is loneliness, exactly? Well, it’s less about the number of friends you have and more about how you feel. Some people are very happy to spend a lot of time alone, while others may be part of a large social circle but still feel lonely and isolated.
Public Health England makes a distinction between ‘social isolation’ and ‘loneliness’ with the following definitions:
The inadequate quality and quantity of social relations with other people at the different levels where human interaction takes place (individual, group, community and the larger social environment).
An emotional perception that can be experienced by individuals regardless of the breadth of their social networks.
In conclusion, being socially isolated can lead people to develop feelings of loneliness, but it is not the only trigger. We will explore other triggers later in this information pack.
Is the problem getting worse?
It is normal for people to feel left out and lonely sometimes – most people do from time to time. But it becomes a more serious problem if such feelings persist and take over. Loneliness is a very common feeling for people who call Samaritans; it is the second most common concern expressed by men and fourth by females.
Studies suggest that feelings of loneliness and isolation are becoming more prevalent among young people. ChildLine carried out 4,636 counselling sessions for loneliness in 2017/18 – a 14 per cent rise on the previous year. Young people spoke to ChildLine about struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness due to mental health issues, bullying and social media use.
The Index of Wellbeing produced by the Intergenerational Foundation looked at five wellbeing areas – relationships, economic, health, personal environment and belonging – over three snapshots in time: 1995, 2005 and 2015, for young people aged 20 to 29. The quality of family relationships declined by more than 50 per cent between 2005 and 2015, with respondents much less likely to say that one of their three closest friends was also a relative in 2015 than either 2005 or 1995. In addition, “belonging” wellbeing declined by 32 per cent between 2005 and 2015: this was attributed to falls in volunteering, people’s interest in politics and their tendency to observe a religion – all activities that have been strongly associated with a sense of belonging and a level of trust in society.
It also seems that many of the activities commonly associated with providing opportunities for children to make new friends and socialise with different types of people have become more elusive for many families. Research by the Social Mobility Commission found that the ability of children and youngsters to play sport, learn to play a musical instrument or join a drama group is increasingly dependent upon how much money their family has.
Regularly experiencing social isolation and loneliness can have serious long-term effects for people.
As well as the emotional toll that isolation and loneliness can take on individuals, there are wider impacts for society at large. Public Health England says that the quality and quantity of social relationships affects people’s health behaviours, their physical and mental health, and risk of mortality. Research suggests that children who experience social isolation in childhood tend to have worse educational outcomes and go on to get lower-paid, less satisfying jobs, and have higher likelihoods of smoking, obesity and psychological distress in adulthood. Chronic loneliness can be as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Findings from studies on participants in the 1958 British Birth Cohort found that individuals who were regularly bullied as children had greater risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts at age 45. Samaritans also cites an association between suicide and loneliness, with most young people who have suicidal thoughts saying that loneliness plays a significant role in causing these.
So, successful interventions to tackle social isolation reduce the burden on health and social care services, providing an economic benefit as well as a social one.
Social isolation and loneliness can also be a key factor in making young people more vulnerable to becoming a victim of crime, abuse or exploitation. This was one of the key drivers behind the government’s decision to create the post of Minister for Loneliness at the urging of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in 2017, and to produce a cross-government strategy on loneliness in England, which was published in 2018.
According to Action for Children, chronically lonely children are also at greater risk of becoming victims of child sexual exploitation. Perpetrators target vulnerable children and child victims of neglect can be vulnerable because of their social isolation, unable to discriminate between genuine interest and friendship, and behaviour that is manipulative, coercive or abusive.
Neighbourhood Watch is always keen to support the government’s efforts to cut crime and build social capital, and so we have produced this information pack and toolkit to help NW coordinators understand the problem of loneliness and isolation among young people, learn who is most at risk, and signpost them to some services and guidance that could help those young people. The toolkit also provides some resources to help coordinators spread the word about the issue, so that other members of the community, family members, friends or neighbours of young people, can help too.