Young people face many challenges in the world today, from finding a job to the ever-unrealistic dream of home ownership to even wondering whether we’ll have a liveable planet in fifty years’ time. Coupled with that, there’s an epidemic of loneliness — increasingly, young people are feeling lonely, despite seemingly being more social and connected than any other age group. Professor Andrea Wigfield, the director of the Centre for Loneliness Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, says that while social isolation is an objective measure, loneliness is a “subjective, negative feeling”, a mismatch between one’s desired and actual social relationships. And, despite a common misconception that the elderly are most prone to loneliness, it’s actually the young who are hit hardest — but why?
Just under one in 10 people aged 16 to 29 reported feeling lonely often or always, according to an analysis of recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) data by the Campaign to End Loneliness (CEL). This was the highest level of all age groups, and it is set against a backdrop of chronic loneliness levels among all age groups, which rose during the pandemic and never really came down again. According to this data, at the peak of lockdown in late 2020 and early 2021, levels reached 7.2%, and were still at 7.08% two years later. In 2018, the figure had been 5%.
Why should young people be so much more susceptible to loneliness? As the CEL analysis suggests, lockdown did a lot to worsen the problem — children and young people were kept away from their friends, teachers, families, and communities at exactly the time of their lives when they should have been making these connections. During the first lockdown, 35% of young people said they felt lonely often or most of the time, despite spending three hours on social media, while YouGov figures from later that year found 69% of 13-19-year-olds felt “often” or “sometimes” alone in the previous fortnight. Institutions and communities are barely starting to get to grips with the impact of lockdowns on young people.
Even before the pandemic, young people were reporting that they are more lonely than older generations
Riley, a student at Sheffield when lockdown hit, described the impact of forced isolation: “I’ve been dealing with degrees of loneliness for a large chunk of my life. I was often reassured by my family that uni would change all that. Most of my studies have been online, so I don’t know anyone on my course. Obviously, most societies shut down or went online.” Although events started running again in second year, Riley didn’t get involved, describing themselves as “stunted socially”: “I feel like I don’t know enough about how to socialise in order to make friends properly. I find myself wondering if something’s wrong with me or I give off a bad energy.”
However, there’s clearly more than just Covid — the restrictions have deepened a trend that was already there. Even before the pandemic, young people were reporting that they are more lonely than older generations. A survey conducted in 2019 of more than 2,000 UK adults found that nearly nine in 10 (88%) Britons aged between 18 and 24 said they experience loneliness to some degree — 24% said they suffer loneliness often, while 7% reported being lonely all the time.
Some experts have suggested that young people feel loneliness more intensely because they are at a point of discovering who they are, leaving established support networks to go to university or start a new job away from home. It’s a time, as Richard Weissbourd, psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, notes, of transition from their “inherited families to their chosen families”, and so they lack the important connection to those who can “be critical guardrails against loneliness”.
On a Friday night, I’ll go on Instagram. I follow quite a lot of people who will be out doing stuff with friends and posting. And I’ll feel like: ‘Oh, I’m on my own. Why am I on my own?
– Kate, university worker
It’s worth noting the role of social media and the internet, which have only truly become major players in our lifetimes. Professor Wigfield notes that comparison to others plays a part in fuelling loneliness, suggesting a link to social media: “The thing that influences loneliness is the social connection [people] desire and what they perceive their peers to have,” she said. “With young people, there’s an expectation that you have an active social life.”
Although phones and social media may seem like tools for dealing with loneliness, many researchers believe that replacing authentic face-to-face interactions with DM-ing and online commenting actually augments that feeling of loneliness — a virtual connection still feels isolating, and even risks increasing FOMO. Kate, a 26-year-old university worker, described this dynamic: “On a Friday night, I’ll go on Instagram. I follow quite a lot of people who will be out doing stuff with friends and posting. And I’ll feel like: ‘Oh, I’m on my own. Why am I on my own?’”
One of the reasons that I wanted to write about loneliness for my final Features piece is because it’s a problem that affects me personally. I may not seem an obvious candidate to feel lonely, as I’m often surrounded by people in a variety of social settings, but I never feel wanted, or like I’m part of the group. In the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I wrote an article about how the lockdowns had reshaped conceptions of friendship, making people feel lonelier because they were stripped of casual interactions such as chatting with people at the shop or the people you pass on campus.
I want to quote myself, because the words remain as true as ever: “I’ve always felt lonely, especially when I’m around other people. I’m someone who sits in the corner, smiling on the outside, but with questions like ‘would my friends care, or even notice, if I wasn’t here’ constantly running through my mind. There are crushingly few instances in my life when I feel as if I’ve meaningfully connected with anyone, and it made it really hard just to be with people. It’s a hard thing to describe, that inability to feel connection, that feeling that your impact on someone else’s life is like footprints on the sand as the tide sweeps in.”
Although I’ve always been around people, I’ve always felt lonely with them. At school, I lived in a dangerous area and so I never went out with friends — I worked instead, and my friends sometimes came into the shop after days out to which I wasn’t invited. As the primary care physician Dr Michelle Blain says: “You don’t have to be alone to be lonely. It can happen if you can’t foster a sense of engagement and belonging or don’t feel accepted and respected by people you engage with.” This was me as a kid, and it’s still me as an adult now.
Societies helped at university, as I finally met people who shared my interests — and, in all frankness, weekly socials were incredible for making people interact with me. One of the reasons I ran for exec was so people would have to talk to me, because I found it hard to imagine they’d want to otherwise. Still, I spent a good deal of time in my room on my own, looking at the photos my friends shared on social media of parties, events, and meet-ups to which I was never invited. I share Kate’s pain, and I still do – for me, spending time with others is such a luxury, yet I’m always suspicious of it as a result, because I don’t understand why they’d want me.
Self-care and being kind to yourself are important, and it’s always good to find meaningful connections with people who share common interests
My own experience tallies with Weissbourd’s work on loneliness, notably a survey that suggests lonely people often feel they’re reaching out or listening to other people more than other people are reaching out or listening to them. He said: “These things can become self-defeating. When you feel like you’re trying hard while other people are not trying hard, or you feel like you’re going to get rejected again, you withdraw, which increases your loneliness and your anxiety about social situations.”
Professor Wigfield stressed that loneliness is a natural response, “the body telling you you need to find someone to talk to”. She added: “Temporarily it’s the equivalent of being hungry. When it becomes chronic, that’s what it starts affecting health.” What can we do? Self-care and being kind to yourself are important, and it’s always good to find meaningful connections with people who share common interests. But it’s also a problem of social infrastructure, Weissbourd states, that helps tackle and remove the stigma of loneliness. In a society where we’re increasingly and ever-closer connected, but we feel lonelier than ever before, clearly something is going wrong.