Loneliness in young people: research briefing

Improving our understanding of the current state of loneliness in children and young people.

What is the current state of loneliness in children and young people?

Restrictions put in place by Governments to contain the spread of COVID-19 have caused extended periods of physical isolation for children and young people away from their friends, teachers, extended families and community networks.

Loneliness can be defined as the state of distress or discomfort that results when we perceive a gap between our desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.

Early in the pandemic, when young people were asked in March 2020 what their top concerns were about coping over the next few months, their top concern was isolation and loneliness 1.

  • As the first lockdown was progressing in April/May 2020, 35% of young people said they feel lonely often or most of the time despite spending three hours on social media 2.
  • In late November 2020, according to a survey of UK adults which took place nine months into COVID-19 restrictions, almost half of 18- to 24-year olds reported being lonely during lockdown.
  • In a YouGov poll responded to around the same time, 69% of adolescents aged 13-19 said they felt alone “often” or “sometimes” in the last fortnight and 59% feel they have no one to talk to “often” or “sometimes”3.

These findings suggest that current restrictions are having a heavy toll on children and young people. As the amount of time living under restrictions increases, children and young people are reporting feeling lonely in higher numbers.

Why are children and young people experiencing loneliness?

One of the primary reasons that children and young people may be feeling lonely is the inability to socialise and mix with friends in and outside of educational settings at this time.

  • 76% of young people have said not being able to see friends had a negative impact3.
  • 26% of respondents said their relationships with friends have got worse 3.

Friends are of particular importance to the development of a young person’s identity during these early life stages and they provide vital forms of support 4. Removing opportunities from children and young people to socialise with their peers appears to be contributing to feelings of loneliness and may have long term effects on their mental health.  

Is the pandemic solely to blame for this?

However, restrictions in response to the pandemic can’t be blamed fully for comparatively high feelings of loneliness in children and young people. Even before the pandemic, young people had been reporting they are more lonely than older generations.

A survey conducted in 2019 of more than 2,000 UK adults found that:

  • Nearly nine in ten (88%) Britons aged from 18 to 24 said they experience loneliness to some degree with a quarter (24%) suffering often and 7% saying they are lonely all of the time.
  • In comparison, 70% of those aged over 55 also say they can be lonely to some extent, however, only 7% are lonely often and just 2% say they are lonely all the time5.

Similarly, results of a survey circulated in 2018 found that:

  • 40% of respondents aged 16-24 reported feeling lonely often or very often, while only 29% of people aged 65-74 and 27% of people aged over 75 said the same6.

These findings fly in the face of the stereotypical image of a lonely, elderly person, with some experts suggesting that young people feel loneliness more intensely because they are at a life stage of discovering who they are, leaving established support networks to go to university or starting a new job away from home. This is not to say that many older people don’t experience intense feelings of loneliness however the stereotype of the lonely, elderly person may cause us to overlook loneliness in other age groups.

Does social media have a role?

There may be other factors at play in young people’s lives that are causing heightened levels of loneliness compared to older generations. The role of social media has been highlighted as a potential reason why loneliness is higher in children and young people although the evidence is not clear.

Social media use can decrease loneliness through seeking support and positive feedback but it can also have negative effects through receiving negative feedback and experiencing social media ostracism7.

Social media use appears not to be a “smoking gun” in terms of trying to explain why young people feel more lonely than older generations. Overall, these levels of loneliness in children and young people should be of major concern to us as a society and efforts should be made to reduce loneliness in this age group.

The relationship between loneliness and mental health

There are well established links between loneliness and poor mental health. In a recent review of the scientific literature, loneliness was associated with future mental health problems up to 9 years later with the strongest association being with depression.

Social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of depression, and possibly anxiety at the time at which loneliness was measured and between 0.25 and 9 years later. It appears that the duration of loneliness was more strongly correlated with symptoms of poor mental health than intensity of loneliness.

This is of particular relevance in the COVID-19 context, as politicians in different countries consider the length of time that schools should remain closed, and the implementation of social distancing within schools. These findings were consistent across studies of children, adolescents, and young adults8.

Loneliness may affect the mental health of boys and girls differently. Loneliness seems to be more strongly associated with elevated depression symptoms in girls 9 and with elevated social anxiety in boys10.

Need support?

  • If you are a young person experiencing loneliness then read our tips for you.
  • If you are an adult experiencing loneliness then read our tips for you.  
  • Remember that Samaritans are available 24/7 for free on 116 123 (UK) and whatever you're going through, they're here to face it with you.

Unlock loneliness campaign

Want to learn more about our campaign which aims to raise awareness of loneliness in young people, provide tips on ways to cope and inform the government on recommendations for tackling this? Then head to our campaign page:

Read more

References

  1. Young Minds. Coronavirus report March 2020. https://youngminds.org.uk/media/3708/coronavirus-report_march2020.pdf.
  2. Oxford ARC Study. Achieving resilience during COVID-19 weekly report 2. 2020. https://oxfordarcstudy.com/2020/05/20/weekly-report-2/.
  3. Mental Health Foundation. Loneliness during Corona-virus. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/loneliness-during-coronavirus (2020).
  4. Meeus W, D. M. Identity development, parental and peer support in adolescence: results of a national Dutch survey. Adolescence. 30, 931–944 (1995).
  5. Ibbetson, C. Young Britons are the most lonely. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/relationships/articles-reports/2019/10/03/yo....
  6. BBC. 16-24 year olds are the loneliest age group according to new BBC Radio 4 survey. https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2018/loneliest-age-group-ra....
  7. Webster, D., Dunne, L. & Hunter, R. Association Between Social Networks and Subjective Well-Being in Adolescents: A Systematic Review. Youth Soc. (2020) doi:10.1177/0044118X20919589.
  8. Loades, M. E. et al. Rapid Systematic Review : The Impact of Social Isolation Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 59, 1218–1239 (2020).
  9. Liu, H., Zhang, M., Yang, Q. & Yu, B. Gender differences in the influence of social isolation and loneliness on depressive symptoms in college students : a longitudinal study. Soc. Psychiatry Psychiatr. Epidemiol. (2020) doi:10.1007/s00127-019-01726-6.
  10. Mak, Hio Wa, Gregory M. Fosco, M. E. F. The Role of Family for Youth Friendships: Examining a Social Anxiety Mechanism. J Youth Adolesc. 47, 306–320 (2019).