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When we think about people who are lonely, we might be quick to conjure a picture of an older person sitting alone, without friends or loved ones. While for some this is, sadly, the reality, it isn’t the whole picture – being alone is not synonymous with loneliness, being surrounded by friends and loved ones does not negate feelings of loneliness, and loneliness is not just an affliction of older people.

In fact, young people between 16 and 24 years of age report feeling lonely more often than any other age group. In December 2018 the Office for National Statistics published its first report on loneliness in children and young people between 10 and 24 years of age. Spikes in loneliness occur at key transition points: starting secondary school, leaving secondary school, and entering the adult world and establishing their independence.

  • Around 11% of children 10–15 years old and 10% of young people 16–24 years old reported feeling lonely often.
  • More specifically, 16% of 12-year-olds and 13% of 18-year-olds and 21-year-olds said they were often lonely.

By comparison, only 6% of all adults feel lonely often or always. Two questions spring to mind: are the high levels of loneliness among young people at transition points really surprising, and is there anything that can be done about them?

What causes loneliness in young people?

The Loneliness Action Group says that when existing social connections are challenged or severed during times of transition, this can reduce opportunities for ‘easy’ connection and threaten self-identity, increasing the risk of loneliness. This is an almost perfect description of my experience of moving from primary to secondary school: existing social connections severed – check; reduced opportunities for ‘easy’ connection – check; threats to self-identity – check. It’s normal to feel a degree of loneliness at these times, and it’s manageable when these experiences are temporary. When loneliness is chronic, it becomes self-perpetuating. It saps energy, increases anxiety and reduces a person’s capacity to seek and experience meaningful social connection.

The ages of 12, 18 and 21 are key points when self-identity undergoes profound change. This change is positive and helps define the adult the young person will become. The challenges encountered in these formative years encourage independence and help build resilience. But when the challenges persist and seem insurmountable, they can cause a person to withdraw and view the world and others as hostile and unwelcoming, and pose a threat to a person’s health and wellbeing.

What can we do about it?

Travelling around the UK this year as part of the Young people’s future health inquiry, I heard about the myriad challenges that young people face. Many of their experiences resonated with my own. Although growing pains are part and parcel of this period of life, that does not make them any less real, and certainly there is more that can be done to support young people and reduce the risk of loneliness. The government’s strategy on loneliness acknowledges that young people are at risk, but – like the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission paper preceding it – offers no examples of effective interventions to support young people who are lonely.

I am not sure what an effective intervention might look like for young people. Loneliness in young people can be a different beast to the loneliness experienced by older people – often the issue is not a lack of opportunities for social interaction but a deluge of them. When it comes to mental illness, we understand the gap between the support required and the support provided for young people. But we have some way to go when it comes to young people and loneliness. We can learn from what the young people we spoke to this year told us about mental health more broadly – the earlier we listen to them and help them understand what they’re experiencing, the better we can provide comfort and prevent the situation from spiraling. 

So let's spare a thought for the young people who are finding their feet at secondary school or university, or slogging through job applications. There’s a chance they’re feeling equally lonely and need the support of their friends, families and communities just as much as the older generation. 

Matt Jordan is a Programme Officer in the Healthy Lives team at the Health Foundation. This blog was originally published in December 2018.

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