Loneliness ‘epidemic’ plaguing young people

Together, but alone: Is our obsession with technology making us more lonely? © PA

Experts say that loneliness could be reaching epidemic proportions among the young and that social media may be making it worse. How serious is the problem and should we do more to solve it?

‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ wrote the 17th century poet John Donne. But in the 21st century, it seems, increasing sections of society are more adrift than ever.

Loneliness has become a prominent issue in recent months. Last month the Office for National Statistics found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe and discovered that Britons are less likely to have people they can turn to in a crisis than their European counterparts.

Earlier in the year, scientists warned that extreme feelings of isolation among the elderly on a long-term basis can be worse than obesity in terms of increasing the health risks that lead to premature death.

While loneliness is a recognised problem among the elderly, its effect on young people is sometimes overlooked. Yet in 2010, the Mental Health Foundation found that those under the age of 34 were more likely to feel lonely often, to worry about feeling alone and to feel depressed because of loneliness, than the over-55s. Some experts say that the problem has now reached epidemic proportions among 18-34 year olds and warn that there is not enough in the way of services available to combat the problem.

And the issue is serious. There is growing evidence that there is a strong relationship between loneliness and mental health. It can also contribute to increased stress, depression, paranoia, anxiety, addiction and suicide.

Signs of the growing trend are all around, with most universities now running counselling sessions specifically for loneliness. A Twitter hashtag, #ForeverAlone, has also become enormously popular since 2013, the forlorn statement usually accompanied by glum pictures of ready meals or declarations of broken relationships.

Blame is often put on social media for leading young people to feel more isolated. Users can feel forced to present idealised versions of themselves to the world and spend their time comparing their lives to other people’s at the expense of physical social interaction. While Facebook can mean getting in touch with a loved one in a distant country, hungering for online responses is far from healthy.

Teen spirit

Some say that feelings of loneliness, shyness, self-doubt and low self-esteem among young people are natural and to be expected. Besides, many people enjoy their own company and actively seek isolation; there is nothing wrong with learning to be happy by yourself.

But others argue that there is a big difference between voluntary solitude and enforced loneliness. While the young generation is often thought of as being the most connected, few realise quite how alienating social media and modern life can be.

You Decide

  1. What factors contribute to loneliness?
  2. Do you think young people are more likely to be lonely than the elderly? Or is it the other way round?

Activities

  1. Write a list of ways in which loneliness can be combated.
  2. Prepare the opening speech for a debate, either proposing or opposing the motion: ‘This House believes that Facebook is a reflection of urban loneliness.’

Some People Say...

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.’ Mother Teresa”

What do you think?

Q & A

So does using social media make everyone feel lonely?
It doesn’t affect all of us, but it is worth considering how much time you spend on social media. Some experts say that the key to not being lonely later on in life can be to make good, long-lasting friendships while you are young. Flicking through online photographs and updating Facebook profiles is probably not the best way to achieve this.
What does being lonely feel like?
Most of us feel the need for rewarding social contact: someone to laugh with and a shoulder to cry on when things go wrong. If our need for this type of contact is not met, we can experience loneliness. But it is important to realise that many people choose to be alone and live happily, while other people may have lots of social contact and still feel lonely.

Word Watch

John Donne
John Donne (1572–1631) was one of the leading metaphysical poets of the Renaissance. A contemporary of Shakespeare, he is known for both his love poetry and his religious verse. He is also now considered one of the greatest writers of English prose, although his work fell from favour after his death.
Loneliness capital
The study found that, overall, Britons are less likely to know their neighbours or have strong friendships than people elsewhere in the EU.
Elderly
Last month it was announced that GPs are now being encouraged to prescribe trips to lunch clubs and museums as part of new measures to tackle loneliness among the elderly, at a time when the links between loneliness and poor health are becoming more apparent.
Growing evidence
Paul Farmer, the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, and Jenny Edwards, the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, say loneliness can be both a cause and an effect of mental health problems.

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