Exploring loneliness in children

3rd Apr 2019
Families, children and young people
Jane Caro

Jane Caro

Associate Director of England

Read more Read more

This content mentions loneliness or isolation, which some people may find triggering.

The ONS has released a significant report today ‘Exploring loneliness in children, Great Britain: 2018’, which is an analysis of children’s (aged 10 to 15) reporting of loneliness and their perception of their circumstances.

It's important to remember that loneliness can be a normal part of life if it is transient and not experienced too frequently. However, this report notes that chronic loneliness can have a profoundly negative effect on the health of all ages and can be considered the 'social equivalent of physical pain'.

More research is needed on loneliness in children

The report points out that there is much more extensive data on the experience of loneliness in older people but comparatively little on the experience in children and young people.

We know that the childhood years are a period of particularly intensive growth and development and that frequent and chronic loneliness during this period is likely to have a proportionately greater detrimental effect on a young person's mental well-being.

45% of children said they felt lonely ‘often or ‘some of the time’

The survey found that over 45% of children asked said they felt lonely 'often' or 'some of the time'.

Further research into the link between the experience of loneliness and the development of mental health problems needs to be prioritised.

Poverty and children’s experience of loneliness

We know that there is a link between social and economic inequality and poor physical and mental health. This survey and report provide further evidence of this connection between poverty and emotional well-being, with children living in relative poverty being nearly twice as likely to report feeling lonely than those who live above the threshold.

Although some of the children interviewed as part of the survey reported that their loneliness was connected to not having the material possessions that other children have (new trainers, phones etc), the report suggests that loneliness linked to relative poverty is more complex than simply not having enough material possessions.

The importance of autonomy in a child’s life

Significantly, the report highlights the importance of children's autonomy, defined as the amount of choice they have in life. When this factor is considered, satisfaction with material possessions no longer features as a factor in relation to loneliness. Children who experience low satisfaction with the amount of choice they have in life are 4 times more likely to report feeling lonely than children who report high levels of satisfaction with their autonomy.

The importance of healthy relationships in a child’s life

As would be expected, children who have low contentment with their relationships with friends are significantly (7 times) more likely to report feeling lonely than those who are content with their relationships. The main adult parent/carer's life satisfaction is significantly associated with children's reporting of loneliness.

Further research is needed on children and loneliness

  • More research is needed on the connection between loneliness in children and the development of mental health problems
  • More research is needed into the connection of children living in cities reporting higher rates of loneliness
  • More research is needed on how to improve adult's and parent's mental health

Areas we need to tackle to support children and loneliness

  • Factors such as relative poverty seem to be linked to childhood loneliness and must be tackled
  • The quality of life in urban settings needs to be addressed such as through initiatives like Thrive London
  • The report provides evidence of protective factors which provide an opportunity to intervene to build children's resilience against loneliness. In particular, increasing their autonomy and amount of choice in life seems linked to a reduction in their experience of loneliness
  • Programmes such as Peer Education Project (PEP) which seek to empower young people with knowledge and understanding may have a role to play in empowering them to feel more able to make choices in their lives.
  • As would be expected, good relationships with peers are correlated with a decreased risk of reporting loneliness.

We very much welcome this report, as we feel that the experience of loneliness amongst children, is likely to have important implications for their emotional well-being and mental health as they grow and develop into the next generation of adults.

If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

Join our movement

As Jane says, we want to keep empowering young people with knowledge and understanding through programmes like our Peer Education Project. But we can't do it by ourselves. We need your help to move us forward. Donate today and join our movement!
Donate now

Related content

Loneliness help and advice

Help and advice on how to cope with loneliness and improve your mental health.

A-Z Topic: Children and young people

Mental health problems affect around one in six children. They include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder (a type of behavioural problem), and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives.

Was this content useful?