World’s largest survey on loneliness reveals 16-24 year olds are most likely to be lonely

Results from the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment, a survey of 55,000 people on loneliness, have shown that 16-24 year olds are the most likely to be lonely. The survey found 40% of 16 to 24-year-olds reported that they “often” or “very often” feel lonely, compared with 27% of over 75s. Higher levels of loneliness were found in young people across cultures, countries, and genders, striking down the stereotype that loneliness mainly strikes older people.

“Many young people we work with feel lonely, especially when they go through big changes in their lives - like leaving school, starting university, starting a new job, moving to a new area, or experiencing big changes in friendships or relationships,” Matt Blow, Policy Manager at YoungMinds said.

“Feeling lonely isn’t itself a mental health problem, but it can have a negative impact on your mental health, especially if the loneliness lasts a long time. Young people who are struggling with their mental health also often feel isolated or alone. If you are feeling lonely, or struggling with your mental health, it’s important to talk to someone about how you’re feeling – that could be a friend, parent, teacher, GP or helpline. It’s also crucial that the current spotlight on young people’s mental health is turned into action, so that young people are able to get support when they need it if they are struggling to cope.”

Although it may be tempting to connect loneliness in young people with social media, the data shows that people who report high levels of loneliness don’t use social media any more often than other people, but they use it differently: they have more Facebook friends who they are only friends with online and who don’t overlap with their real-life friends. “Living much of your life on social media also means that you can be extremely well connected, but still feel lonely, especially if you can’t relate to the apparently ‘perfect’ lives that other people are presenting,” Matt said.

The results were revealed first at a live event presented by Claudia Hammond at the Wellcome Collection and broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind Monday evening. Claudia discussed the results of the research with Professor Christina Victor of Brunel University and Professor Pam Qualter of Manchester University, and the event also included musician Jazz Morley and poet Daljit Nagra who both performed and spoke about how their creativity was driven by their loneliness.

“We’ve talked a lot about mental health, and I think loneliness is the next thing we want to get to grips with as a society,” Professor Pam Qualter said.

“I think what’s great about the survey is people have also taken part in a series of experiments, so they’ve given us lots of data that really answers important questions about social skills, stigma and so on. For me what’s really striking is that people are saying loneliness is emptiness, it’s about being disconnected,” Pam said.

Professor Christina Victor said the results of this particular survey were surprising because there are very few surveys on loneliness that include the whole age range. “It’s not a competition as to which group is top of the class, but it certainly looks like loneliness goes down as people grow older. Potentially that’s as a learning experience, for older people, they have experienced periods of loneliness and they’ve learnt strategies for dealing with it; whereas for our young adults perhaps it’s a new experience - don’t quite know what it is, don’t quite know what to do about it and that it’s for most of us just part of life.

Pam, who studies loneliness in young people, said young people talked a lot about the fact that they are trying to live up to what they see as ‘normal’ and finding their way in a world where they may not fit into that version of normal. “As we get older, we realise there are lots of normals so we are able to be who we really want to be as we get older.”

Philosopher Julian Baggini challenged the idea that loneliness is always a negative experience. “In wanting to kind of work to improve the lot of the lonely, there’s always this danger that we’re going to make out that being single or being more of an individualist is a risk factor for bad mental health. And I think we should also talk about some more of the positives about being by yourself for a lot of the time. I think that actually we should be very clear that there’s no problem with being a bit of a loner, there’s certainly no problem with being single, and if you could just feel positive about that and see the advantages of that, it sounds like you’re going to be much less likely to have any feelings of loneliness, which is the problem.”

In addition to answering questions on loneliness, people surveyed were asked to give solutions they found that worked for themselves or others in order to alleviate loneliness.

The top five solutions reported are:

  1. Do activities that distract you or dedicate time to work/study or hobbies.
  2. Join a social club or take up new activities and pastimes.
  3. Change your thinking to make it more positive.
  4. Start a conversation with anyone.
  5. Talk to friends or family about your feelings.

Christina said she found the issue about starting a conversation with anyone interesting. “Sometimes we think the solution to loneliness is to have deep and meaningful conversations with individuals but perhaps it’s just those small social exchanges at the bus stop, in the shop, small things that all of us can do every day.”

Philosopher Julian Baggini commented on the top reason - particularly the word ‘distraction.’ “I think the word distraction is a bit wrong. I think there’s so much potential for people to improve the quality of the time by themselves. It’s not distraction, it’s actually engagement, with things but not with other people necessarily - engagement with your art, with your creativity, the beauty of the natural world, whatever it might be. So I think actually the thing that’s missing from this is this opportunity to enrich our individual lives and not make them entirely dependent upon interaction with other people.

“I think we need to recognise that yes we do feel lonely, and it’s a normal thing, absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and we should try to perhaps work on it. But I also think… sometimes you can’t just necessarily take these things away. It’s not just something you should seek to eradicate and that we should look at ways of living rich lives maybe sometimes in spite of our loneliness. Feeling lonely doesn’t mean that life stops or there’s nothing else of meaning for you,” Julian said.

If loneliness is a concern for you, All in the Mind have created several different resources on how to cope.

If you’re struggling with loneliness, counselling may help. Visit Counselling Directory to find a qualified counsellor near you.

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash.