Richard Bellis 5th September 2018
In modern times, with everyone connected by numerous social media apps, is it possible for young people to feel lonely?
After the launch of the Jo Cox commission on loneliness in January 2017, loneliness made the headlines and people began to recognise it as a serious problem in society. Cox set up a cross-party loneliness commission with her colleague Seema Kennedy MP — their vision was that the commission would run for one year and work with charities, businesses and the government to turbo-charge public understanding and policy response to the loneliness crisis. It was a success and we now have a loneliness minister, Tracey Crouch.
Without a doubt, positive steps have been taken to address loneliness but it’s still seen as a problem affecting older people — those who don’t use technology, can’t get out and about and don’t have family nearby.
It’s hard to picture young people being lonely.
But imagine you have moved away for the first time to a new city, perhaps because of a new job or a university course. It’s exciting — but it quickly comes apparent that you are very much alone for the first time.
Buying Tesco meals for one at the self-service checkout, microwaving them and then eating them to the sound of Netflix — so it feels like someone else is in the room — wasn’t the university experience I’d had in mind but it became a reality.
If you don’t like nights out or are not big on sports, it’s easy to feel quite excluded, as these make up a huge part of uni life for most students in the UK.
Similarly, after graduating, people routinely leave their uni friends behind and move to a completely new part of the country to start a new job. Loneliness can easily become a problem here too, as most people don’t make immediate close friendships with their work colleagues and they’re in a town or city miles away from old friends and family.
What makes loneliness worse for young people is that, for the most part, it will go unseen. Because of the stigma attached and the connotations — that there must be a reason you’re lonely — people don’t tend to speak up about it.
What’s interesting though, is that young people report being lonelier than their older counterparts. Almost 10% of people aged 16 to 24 said they were “always or often” lonely – the highest proportion of any age group in the Office for National Statistics survey of 10,000 people. The number of lonely young people was more than three times higher than people aged 65 and over.
Britain is the loneliest country in the EU — we are less likely to build strong friendships and a high proportion of people have no one to rely on in a crisis.
How does this happen? There are lots of reasons people end up lonely.
Social media can be a blessing, solving some of the problems of loneliness, with apps like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger helping people to communicate with friends and relatives. However, social media can also cause loneliness in a number of ways.
More than nine out of 10 people aged 16-24-use some sort of social media and Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular among this age group. However, Instagram is the worst app for young people’s mental health with Snapchat being the second worst, according to research.
The survey by the Royal Society for Public Health asked 1,479 young people aged 14-24 to score popular social media apps on issues such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying, body image and FOMO, or “fear of missing out” (where your social media peers seem to be enjoying a better quality of life).
Likes, retweets, and swiping ‘yes’ make our brain’s pleasure centre light up in the same way a drug does
With Instagram and Snapchat the fear of missing out is more prevalent than with Twitter and Facebook because the apps are image-based and appear to give us a bigger insight into peoples lives. Seeing friends’ and acquaintances’ parties and their holidays can make us feel down — and the addictive nature of social media can mean we’ll come back again and again despite how awful it makes us feel.
Sociologist Anna Akbari says there’s a reason we find social media so addictive.
“Likes, retweets, and swiping ‘yes’ make our brain’s pleasure centre light up in the same way a drug does… and the fact this validation is public makes it much more rewarding,” she says.
Dr Bianca Fox of the University of Wolverhampton agrees, adding: “The era of mobile and multi-digital devices has definitely brought with it a deeper sense of loneliness among young people.”
Conducting research on young people and social media, her study interviewed 500 people and found 70% of young people do not trust their online friends — for example, they enjoy online conversations but do not take what is said seriously. The data also finds that 86% feel that they lack companionship, while 75% feel alone sometimes 42% feel alone often. A further 72% of the young people surveyed reported that they feel they are no longer close to anyone, even if they have between 200 and 500 online friends on social media accounts that they access every day.
Experts advise that the less time you spend on social media, the happier you will be. Conversely, if you are lonely, limit social media use to what is necessary, apps that allow you to stay in contact with friends and family and avoid apps that people use to show off.
If you are using instant messenger to communicate with colleagues or fellow students it could be more beneficial to go over and talk to them rather than keeping distance. Stop using social media at least 30 minutes before bed, this will allow the body some downtime and stop you thinking about socialising instead of focusing on relaxing.
A smaller world
These days there is very little need to leave the house — most shopping can be done online — and when we do leave the house, we often don’t leave our little bubbles. With technology becoming more prevalent in society, many people feel we are losing a sense of community. Shops are putting forward more self-service checkouts, takeaways can be ordered online, gym goers mostly have their headphones in. To make things worse for young people, homes are less affordable, meaning millennials are less likely to put down roots in an area, to meet their neighbours and get involved with the local community.
The research backs this up — only 32% of people living in urban areas know five of their neighbour’s names, according to a YouGov poll. This all means we are losing out on talking to people in different ways and it is through talking to people that we make new friends.
Some people don’t like talking to strangers and suffer from strong social anxiety — however, the art of conversation gets easier the more you do it, which means it’s crucial people get the chance to practice.
Not fitting in and being an introvert
While social media and living in a bubble can make you feel lonely, nothing is more isolating than feeling different.
In my own experience, the party culture of universities was a huge barrier to meeting people I had something in common with.
While most people at university love going out, I hate being surrounded by people I don’t know, with awful music blasting in my ear, flashing lights and people throwing up everywhere. I’d rather go to the cinema or the pub where I can actually have a chat with people.
Introverts like me find themselves drained by parties with the loud noises and lots of people — so what can we do to survive as a minority in an extrovert’s world?
It’s a common misconception that introverts and extroverts are incompatible and they should have different friendship groups and, similarly, another misconception is that introverts like to be lonely. Inverts like to have time to themselves but not to be lonely, a small group of friends will do.
Ask five people you know to text you five new activities or experiences for you to try
I spoke to psychotherapist Noel McDermott who said that there are a surprising number of people like me at university.
“Partying is not a main part of university life. It’s a niche activity that a lot of people find stressful. If you don’t like them don’t go. There are literally thousands of things you can do at most universities and colleges organised for you to engage socially and get out of your shell.”
It’s hard to know where to start, but McDermott offers advice for anyone going somewhere new where they don’t know anyone.
“Ask five people you know to text you five new activities or experiences for you to try. If you haven’t gotten a new network of people around by the end of those 25 suggestions, I have a range of hats to choose from for me to eat!”
I conducted an unscientific social media poll on Twitter, asking people aged 15-25 how often they feel lonely, using the same answers as the Office of National statistics poll. The results mirrored what many studies have shown: “Always/Often” 20%, “Sometimes” 69% and “Never” 11%.
This is just a simple poll and not scientific research but illustrates that young people do feel lonely — it may not be all the time but certainly we are not immune from it even in the age of the smartphone.
A threat to health
So why does it matter? Apart from the obvious emotional strain, loneliness affects people’s health too.
Research shows it is worse for you than obesity and lonely people die earlier than non-lonely people, with a 30% bigger chance of suffering a stroke or heart disease, a study by the University of York found.
Loneliness has also been linked to a weakened immune system and high blood pressure which can both also lead to a premature death.
In fact, the problem is so significant that experts say it should be treated the same as a public health problem like smoking.
The problem compounds itself too, because people are less likely to go to the doctor with symptoms caused by loneliness, setting people on a route to an early grave.
It’s positive to see initiatives for tackling loneliness cropping up but as a society and as individuals we can do more. Sometimes simply reaching out to people you don’t speak to often can do the world of good, whether they’re old or young. It’s not always easy to see when someone’s suffering.
Richard Bellis 5th September 2018