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Jan 20, 2022 | by Centre

Loneliness in young people: what are the risk factors?

Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a serious public health concern within the UK. Although it has historically been viewed as an issue amongst older adults, recent research has shown elevated levels of loneliness among young people.

Teams from the Campaign to End Loneliness and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing with researchers at the University of Manchester and the Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow, led by Dr Emily Long, are exploring how the risk for loneliness among young people differs across demographic, social, community, and geographic factors.

The first of four academic papers from the project has now been published.

Kalpa Kharicha from the Campaign to End Loneliness talks us through the headline findings…

Loneliness is harmful to the mental and physical health of people of all ages and good quality relationships help us thrive. We know that young people report the highest levels of loneliness but there is little knowledge about the factors underpinning this vulnerability. 

This important project is looking at adolescents aged 11-15 and young adults aged 16-24. Survey responses of more than 6,500 individuals aged 16-24, from the Understanding Society Study in the UK were analysed by the research team to provide some insight.

Key findings

  • Geographic region explained a substantial proportion of variance across the UK, as between 5 – 8 % of the individual differences in loneliness could be attributed to the local authority in which the young person lived. 
  • Being female, from a minority ethnic group or from a minority sexual orientation mattered more for loneliness than in other areas. This suggests that there are important place-based differences in the experiences of young people from these groups.
  • Community characteristics also played an important role, with higher perceived neighbourhood quality, sense of belonging to the neighbourhood, similarity to others in the neighbourhood, and frequent chatting to neighbours all related to lower levels of loneliness. 
  • In terms of social factors, going out with friends, having a greater number of close friends, a larger proportion of friends of a similar age, and a larger proportion of friends living in the local area were all linked to reduced loneliness.
  • We found that loneliness was higher among those aged 16 to 19 compared to older young people of 20 to 24 years of age.
  • Loneliness was also higher among White British young people compared to those of minority ethnic background. 
  • Young people of minority sexual orientation felt more lonely than their heterosexual peers, with the highest risk associated with ‘other’ sexual orientation, followed by gay or lesbian, and bisexual. 
  • On the whole, lower levels of loneliness were linked to higher life satisfaction and better mental wellbeing. 

Next steps

These findings are really valuable for the development of targeted public health interventions. 

As some of these factors are potentially modifiable, we suggest that national strategies to combat loneliness should be complemented with local-level initiatives, such as building inclusive communities and increasing community engagement.

About the project

Teams from the Campaign to End Loneliness and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing with researchers at Universities of Glasgow and Manchester, led by Dr Emily Long, are using the social-ecological framework to explore risk factors at individual, social, community and geographic levels and the relationships between them. 

The aim of the work is to:

  • Identify social-ecological risk factors and geographical variation in loneliness.
  • Examine mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools.
  • Examine links between loneliness, mental health and wellbeing.
  • Determine trajectories of loneliness during Covid-19.

Find out more about the project

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Find out more about the project

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