Young & lonely

08 March 2019

Why is loneliness affecting children as young as 10, and what can be done to help tackle it? Journalist Georgina Fuller reports.

Lonely Lineart

Loneliness is one of the biggest public health challenges of our time and could cause a number of debilitating conditions including heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s. So said Theresa May (with research to back it up) when she launched the first cross-government strategy to tackle loneliness in October last year (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 2018; HMSO, 2018). The strategy was pioneered by the late MP Jo Cox.

It was quoted that GPs were seeing between one to five people a day suffering with loneliness and that it could pose as big a threat as smoking and obesity to people’s health and wellbeing (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 2018). The prime minister pledged that all GPs in England will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness for community activities and voluntary services by 2023, under the new loneliness initiative. The first minister for loneliness (then Tracey Crouch) was appointed in January 2018, and official strategies to tackle loneliness are being launched across the UK (see So, what’s being done? below).

What’s more it’s now clear that loneliness does not discriminate against age. ‘It [loneliness] is a very complex issue which can affect anybody, regardless of your age, gender or background,’ says minister for loneliness Mims Davies. The true picture of loneliness is continuing to emerge with surveys across the UK increasingly showing the sheer extent of loneliness among young people.

The first such analysis by the ONS in December 2018 found that around one in 10 young people in the UK often feel lonely. The survey showed that 11.3% of children aged 10 to 15 and 9.8% of young people (aged 16 to 24) were ‘often’ lonely. Young women, and those with a long-term illness or disability were more susceptible to loneliness. While nearly half of young men (aged 16 to 24) reported that they ‘hardly ever or never’ felt lonely, only a third (32.4%) of young women said the same.

In the recent National survey for Wales, which revealed that 17% of people were lonely and 54% experienced feelings of loneliness, younger people were the most at risk of isolation (Welsh Government, 2018a). In fact, 20% of 16- to 24-year-olds said they felt lonely, compared with 10% of those over the age of 75.

While a survey of 55,000 members of the public last October found that 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds experience loneliness often or very often, compared with 29% of 65- to 74-year-olds (BBC Radio 4 and Wellcome, 2018).


Why now?

In the ONS study there were found to be a number of contributing factors to loneliness among young people. These included going through periods of transition from childhood to young adulthood: moving from primary to secondary school, to further or higher education, training or entering the world of work and living independently were all potential triggers. At each stage, children and young people described how these changes challenged their personal and social wellbeing.

Other triggers for loneliness included bereavement, bullying or mental health issues. While the rise of social media was found to be both helpful and unhelpful.

‘We need more studies to look at the impact of social media and whether only a sub-group, rather than the majority, feel it increases their loneliness,’ says Louise Arseneault, professor of developmental psychology at King’s College London. ‘We think it’s more complex than that. Social media also connects people, which is a very positive thing.’

‘Social media is problematic if we use it more to watch others and compare ourselves negatively’

Mims Davies agrees that ‘technology offers huge potential for tackling loneliness and bringing people together’. She has been looking at how technology can help reduce loneliness. ‘I want there to be places online where people can go to get support and realise that there may be others literally round the corner from where they live who feel the same way.’

While living your life on social media can make you feel and look more connected, it does not help prevent loneliness, says Nick Harrop, campaigns manager at YoungMinds. ‘Especially if you are being bullied online or can’t relate to the perfect lives that others are presenting.’

‘Social media becomes problematic if we use it more to watch others and compare ourselves negatively,’ concludes Pamela Qualter, professor of education at the University of Manchester.

Meanwhile a study of more than 2200 18-year-olds from England and Wales found that lonelier young people were less likely to be physically active, more likely to smoke, and more likely to use technology compulsively (Matthews et al, 2018).

Overall, are young people lonelier now than they were before? Most likely but it is difficult to tell, says Professor Arseneault. ‘We have more of an awareness about loneliness now and we talk about it more but we don’t have any research to support the idea that young people are lonelier than they were 20 years ago,’ she notes.


The warning signs

Part of the problem, continues Professor Arseneault, is that there is still a significant stigma attached to admitting that you are lonely and that in itself can be profoundly isolating. Many of the young respondents of the ONS survey said they were too embarrassed to admit they were lonely, and saw it as a failure.

Sarah Beeson MBE, health visitor and author, says many young people, including young mothers, don’t like to admit they feel as though they’re not coping. ‘No one wants to make themselves appear vulnerable, especially those with children.’

Nick, from YoungMinds, points out that it is, however, quite normal for teenagers to feel isolated or misunderstood at times. ‘Feeling lonely itself isn’t a mental health problem, but it can have a negative impact on a young person’s mental health,’ he notes. ‘Teenagers may feel particularly lonely during difficult changes - after a bereavement or family breakdown, when they move schools, or because of relationships or friendships ending.’

‘We know from research that feeling lonely contributes to poor mental and physical health, even among children,’ says Professor Qualter who is also contributor to the Why does loneliness make us sick? report. ‘For example, feeling lonely for several months increases your chances of depressive symptoms, contributes to worsening sleep, and leads to reports of ill health.’


So, what’s being done?

As part of the loneliness initiative in England, ‘social prescribing’ will allow GPs to direct patients to community workers offering tailored support to help people improve their health and wellbeing instead of defaulting to medicine.

A network of businesses – including Sainsbury’s, Transport for London, Co-op, British Red Cross, National Grid and the Civil Service – also pledged to take further action to support their employees’ health and social wellbeing (HMSO, 2018).

Mims Davies reveals there is also funding to expand existing programmes that use sport, the arts or music as a way for people to build friendships, as well as an £11.5m building connections fund that has helped 126 projects, such as‘setting up community transport links or creating digital solutions to enable people to connect online’.  

‘I know from my own experiences that loneliness can leave you feeling isolated and low, and can have a huge impact on self-esteem’


‘I know from my own experiences that loneliness can leave you feeling isolated and low, and can have a huge impact on self-esteem,’ says the minister for loneliness. ‘Sometimes we aren’t able to recognise that we’re in that place,’ she continues. ‘That is why the work the government is doing is so important in creating more opportunities for people to make connections and encourage people young and old to say that they feel lonely and would like some support. The conversation we’re all having about loneliness will help reduce stigma around this issue, and help people understand they are not alone in feeling alone.’

In the rest of the UK, the Scottish Government announced in December it would be committing £1m of funding for adult social care and public health teams to tackle loneliness with the Action Group on Loneliness and Isolation in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2018).

And the Welsh minister for children, older people and social care, Huw Irranca-Davies, has said preventing loneliness and isolation should become a ‘national priority’. Early intervention is to be the focus (Welsh Government, 2018b), a consultation on tackling loneliness and social isolation closed on 15 January this year (Welsh Government, 2019), and a final strategy is due soon (Welsh Government, 2018c).

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, a recent report, entitled A connected Ireland, said annual funding of €3m was needed for an official public loneliness campaign and further research (Loneliness Taskforce, 2018).


Lonely Inforgraphic
How can you help?

With limited budgets and resources, what can CPs personally do to help?

The recent ONS report made a number of general suggestions to tackle loneliness, including making it more acceptable to discuss loneliness at school and in society, preparing young people better to understand and address loneliness in themselves and others, creating more opportunities for social connection, and encouraging positive uses of social media (ONS, 2018).

HV Sarah says that having just one person or close relationship with a CP can make all the difference:‘It’s the quality of relationships a young person has as opposed to the quantity, which will make them feel more or less connected to others.’ Validating and trying to understand how they feel is often the first step. ‘Some young people may also have had past experiences where they have lost trust in others, which makes it even more important for them to have an ally,’ Sarah adds.

When it comes to young mothers, Sarah says: ‘Children’s centres and baby clinics can help new mums meet other people in a similar position and CPs can help facilitate parent and baby groups where young mums, especially those who may not have a partner or family nearby, can talk about any issues or feelings in a relaxed environment.’

Working with other practitioners and community volunteers in local libraries, Home Start programmes and parent groups can also help bridge the gaps and provide a more comprehensive service for young people. ‘It’s about looking at new ways of working and reaching those who might be struggling or feeling isolated,’ Sarah continues. ‘Conditions such as PND can be hard to diagnose so if you work with other professionals, such as mental health nurses, it’s easier to pick up on these sorts of things.’

You can also signpost to various initiatives and local charities (see The right direction, below).

Professor Qualter does note that loneliness is not always a negative thing. ‘It’s sometimes good for us because it shows us we need to change something in our social relationships to reconnect with others,’ she says. ‘Retreating from social groups gives us space to think how we want to change our relationships to feel less lonely.’

Loneliness can become a problem, she says, if we cannot reconnect because we psychologically distance ourselves and begin a cycle of distrust. ‘Staying isolated just makes things worse.’

This further highlights the importance of support, as do the following two young people in sharing their stories:

A student from Queen’s University Belfast took part in the Loneliness Taskforce, an Irish public body set up by Senator Keith Swanick and Seán Moynihan from the charity Alone. The student said: ‘I am in college in Queen’s University Belfast, and I’m finding it very hard... meeting people and that. It’s Monday afternoon and I realise I have spoken to nobody since last Thursday. I’m lonely. There you go, I’ve finally said it.’

Michelle Lloyd, an HR manager who blogs about mental health at You Don’t Look Depressed, says living in London has made her feel increasingly lonely. ‘I started having mental health problems in my teens, but I never spoke to anyone about it until my early 20s. I'm now living alone in London and I feel more isolated than ever. Everyone is going about their lives in such a brisk way and it feels like everyone knows what they’re doing and where they’re going and I feel like the odd one out.People used to chat to me and say good morning in Manchester. Missing out on these basic interactions when you’re feeling anxious and lonely is really hard.’ 

The right direction

Where can young people find help if they’re feeling lonely or isolated?

  • Podcasts such as Whole Truth and The Lonely Hour help young people talk candidly on the topics. Whole Truth is a regular podcast for young people focusing on mental health. Recent guests have included rapper Professor Green, writer Matt Haig and Dr Alex (ITV2’s Love Island)
  • Local charities such as the Red Cross have community teams that can help people meet new friends, build confidence and provide general support
  • Next Door and Meet Up are social networks for neighbours and communities. Next Door is free to use and provides a secure platform for neighbours to speak; Meet Up is the world’s largest network of local groups


BBC Radio 4, Wellcome. (2018) 16-24 year olds are the loneliest age group according to new BBC Radio 4 survey. See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2018/loneliest-age-group-radio-4 (accessed 20 February 2019).

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. (2018) A connected society A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change. See: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/750909/6.4882_DCMS_Loneliness_Strategy_web_Update.pdf (accessed 20 February 2019).

HMSO. (2018) PM launches Government’s first loneliness strategy. See: gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy (accessed 19 February 2019).

Loneliness Taskforce. (2018). A Connected Island - An Ireland Free From Loneliness. See: https://lonelinesstaskforce.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/loneliness-taskforce-a-connected-island-an-ireland-free-from-loneliness.pdf (accessed 19 February 2019).

Matthews T et al. (2018) Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study. Psychological Medicine 49(2): 268-277.

NSPCC. (2018) Rise in Childline counselling sessions about loneliness. See: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-we-do/news-opinion/loneliness-childline-rise/ (accessed 20 February 2019).

ONS. (2018) The community life survey 2016 to 2017 and good childhood index survey 2018 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/childrensandyoungpeoplesexperiencesofloneliness/2018

Scottish Government. (2018) A Connected Scotland: our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections. See: https://www.gov.scot/publications/connected-scotland-strategy-tackling-social-isolation-loneliness-building-stronger-social-connections/pages/3/ (accessed 19 February 2019).

Welsh Government. (2018a) National Survey for Wales, 2016-17 Loneliness. See: http://gov.wales/docs/statistics/2018/180213-national-survey-2016-17-loneliness-en.pdf (accessed 19 February 2019).

Welsh Government. (2019) Connected communities - Tackling loneliness and social isolation. See: https://beta.gov.wales/connected-communities-tackling-loneliness-and-social-isolation (accessed 19 February 2019).

Welsh Government. (2018b) “Loneliness and social isolation is a growing threat to public health: We must tackle it together”– Huw Irranca-Davies. See: gov.wales/newsroom/health-and-social-services/2018/loneliness/?lang=en (accessed 19 February 2019).

Welsh Government. (2018c) “Tackling loneliness and isolation in Wales is a national priority” – Huw Irranca-Davies. See: https://gov.wales/newsroom/health-and-social-services/2018/isolation/?lang=en (accessed 21 February 2019).

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