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Are Young People Facing A Loneliness Epidemic?

The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) recently posted on Instagram that 88% of British 18-24-year-olds have experienced loneliness to some degree, making them the loneliest age group in the UK. A combination of the continuing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, a new emphasis on working from home, and the rising cost of living have all seen a rise in social isolation among young adults in our society.

A study by the Making Caring Common Project, in partnership with Harvard University, indicated that the loneliness figures uncovered by CALM were similar in the USA since the Covid-19 pandemic. 61% of young adults were said to have felt “serious loneliness”, significantly higher than the average of 36% across society.

There are plenty of reasons why people feel lonely, and it’s at this point that the differentiation between being alone and being lonely is key. Being alone can often be a comforting feeling, with peace being found in the calm or quiet moments in an increasingly loud and visceral global picture. Loneliness, however, can occur in a room full of people. It can occur while you’re on your own, of course, but also whilst you are at work or even when out with friends.

Loneliness is closely linked to feeling misunderstood, for example when it comes to gender and sexuality. A report into LGBTQ+ wellbeing during lockdown emphasized that 56% of people within the community felt lonely on most days during the lockdown, with a whopping 67% of LGBTQ+ under-18s citing the same intense loneliness.

There is no doubt that lockdowns have worsened the feeling of loneliness or social isolation, not just for LGBTQ+ people, but for everyone. That loneliness figures saw a marked increase during Covid-19 lockdowns is hardly surprising, with vast numbers of people being trapped in their homes for months at a time with no real human contact.

The fear of Covid has certainly had a lasting impact on vast swathes of today’s society and has subsequently made it much more difficult for life to return to normal (whatever that is). A study by Swansea University had alarming results, stating that 66.3% of 16-24-year-olds experienced psychological distress during the country’s lockdown between December 2020 and May 2021, compared to just 16.7% of over-75s.

The Mental Health Foundation found that not seeing friends during the pandemic had harmed 76% of young people, with 26% of young adults noting that the pandemic had worsened their relationships with friends, subsequently making it harder when coming out of lockdown, as people now had fewer friends than before. It is no wonder, then, those young adults feel lonelier now than ever before.

Remote working, aka working from home (WFH), has been one of the big post-pandemic changes, with the BBC reporting that fifty of the biggest employers in the UK have no intention of returning to a fully office-based workforce shortly. Whilst the majority of workers were happy to work from home at least some days a week, 16-24-year-olds are more inclined towards working in an office full time, and so the focus on hybrid working or fully-home based working is not necessarily welcome news to many young workers.

There are many reasons for this, for example, the fact that many young people either live in their family home or rented accommodation, meaning working outside the home provides a much-needed break from the monotony of lockdown life. Centrally, it is also much harder to get training or education via remote working, with The Guardian reporting that up to 50% of Australian students did not wish to encounter online teaching again after the pandemic. For graduates to now be entering a working world that is heavily tilted towards WFH is, therefore, likely to be detrimental to their mental health, especially given many will not meet their colleagues until well into their contract, if at all.

Linked to this, is the fact that the cost of living is on the rise, making it harder for people to afford to leave the house to see friends or family. With inflation hitting 9.9% in September this year, not only have the cost of fuel and mortgage repayments reached eye-watering levels, but the cost of food and drink has also risen exorbitantly. The 7% increase in the price of a pint of lager since 2020, alongside a 16.5% decrease in the average household’s disposable income, has led to 40% of people cutting down significantly on leisure activities such as eating out or socializing outside of the home.

Young people have therefore turned inward and are spending most of their time within their homes, leaving them with little else to do but look at screens. In early 2022, according to Statista, just under 62 million people in the UK were using social media, totaling 93% of the country’s population. In an age of instant messaging and video calls, it’s never been easier to get in touch with other people.

There are positives to social media, with the University of Chicago arguing that online social technologies can reduce loneliness when used to maintain relationships and connect with people. Alternatively, it can be used to replace in-person interaction, which has an inherently harmful effect on the user.

A reliance upon social media during the lockdown, in a period where it was impossible to see anyone apart from those within your household, certainly made it harder for young people to re-enter the world. It became an easy route for social interaction which subsequently damaged in-person meet-ups. Social media is often used as an easy scapegoat when discussing the mental health of young adults and teenagers, but in this case, the enforced increase in online activity certainly has had an impact on the loneliness felt by many of today’s youth.

So why should we care about this?

It’s never nice to feel lonely, no matter who you are, but prolonged periods of loneliness can have long-term detrimental effects on both mental and physical health. Loneliness or feeling isolated is one of many symptoms of depression, whilst spending a lot of time on your own can increase feelings of social anxiety or, in extreme cases, agoraphobia. Physically, long periods of loneliness have been linked to an increased likelihood of having a stroke or developing cardiovascular disease, predominantly due to the impact loneliness has on sleep patterns and increasing blood pressure.

Loneliness amongst young people continues to rise and continues to lead to bigger and more debilitating problems. More support is needed to truly combat this loneliness epidemic before it becomes unsolvable.


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