Youth loneliness – who are the ‘one in three’?

Tuesday 16 January 2018

A ‘silent plague’. An ‘epidemic’ that affects young people more than any other group. These headlines from the past few years show that the evidence has been there for some time – youth  loneliness exists, and on a large scale. The Co-op’s ‘Trapped in a Bubble’ research with the British Red Cross confirms that around one in three young people feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. That’s why we launched Belong – our UK-wide network of partners helping young people beat loneliness.

But why is youth loneliness so widespread? And does it affect some young people more than others?

We know that across all stages of life, loneliness is often linked to times of transition. And young people, of course, have to navigate lots of changes in fairly quick succession – moving from primary to secondary school; dealing with puberty; thinking about careers, and then perhaps moving away from home for work or study. At the same time, young people are often trying to establish or make sense of their own personal identity, as well as experiencing the emotional highs and lows of first romantic relationships.

Unsurprisingly, all this change can be overwhelming at times, and can contribute to feelings of loneliness – or, as we’ve found young people are more likely to frame it, that they ‘don’t fit in’ or ‘don’t feel connected’.

So on one hand, loneliness is to some extent a pretty normal part of growing up. Yet it’s also a word young people don’t seem comfortable using or being associated with. (Media narratives of a ‘plague’ or ‘epidemic’ of youth loneliness don’t help with this stigma – an issue which will probably warrant a whole blog post at some point!)

We also know that beyond the usual challenges of adolescence, there are certain factors that can make young people feel lonely more often, or for longer, than their peers. Sometimes it’s about personal or family circumstances – several of the projects in our Belong network are focusing on well-established risk factors for prolonged loneliness, like having a disability or leaving care.

New research by the National Citizen Service also shows some worrying broader demographic patterns in youth loneliness. While one in three are lonely overall, this rises to more than half among both black and LGBT teens. Loneliness also appears to be much more common in girls (48%) than boys (23%) – although we must be careful interpreting gender differences in how young people report their feelings (that issue about language and stigma again).

On the face of it, our network of Belong partners also reflect these patterns. Some, like the Proud Trust, specifically support LGBT youth. Others work in areas with significant ethnic minority communities. Clean Break use theatre to empower vulnerable young women. Roughly half of our projects have some particular targeted focus like this, while the other half aim to work with disadvantaged young people more broadly.

As we plan our next round of project funding, to be launched in Spring 2018,  we’ll need to look more closely at the profile of who our funds are currently reaching. We’ll shortly be conducting our first annual diversity survey of all our projects, to do just this.

The work our partners are delivering is certainly helping disadvantaged young people and those at risk of loneliness, all across the UK.  But detailed demographic data, combined with the growing body of youth loneliness research, will tell us whether we can do even more to target our resources equitably, helping those who really need it most.

Don’t forget, if you’re a Co-op member you can support our work by choosing us as the cause to benefit from your 1% member reward!

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