Loneliness Connects Us was a UK-based project, involving youth co-researchers, the 42nd Street charity and Manchester Metropolitan University’s Education and Social Research Institute. It was funded by the Co-op Foundation. It took place between 2016-2019, and used artistic and creative methods to explore youth loneliness from the perspective of young people aged 11-25. It aimed to develop new ways of understanding youth loneliness and create strategies for young people (and those closest to them) to reduce problematic and painful loneliness.

Approaching loneliness

Research suggests that 1 in 3 young people suffer from loneliness (Kantar Public, Co-op, British Red Cross, 2016)  65% of 16-25 year olds report feeling lonely at times and 32% feel lonely “often” or “all the time” (Majoribanks and Bradley, 2017). 

Loneliness is subjective. It is something that is perceived and felt, rather than simply a description or the experience of being alone. For this project, loneliness was considered to be the negative emotions that accompany a discrepancy between one’s desired and achieved levels of social relations or one’s perceived social isolation. Although isolation and loneliness are linked it does not necessarily follow that isolated people will feel lonely or that people who are surrounded by people will not feel lonely. 

Loneliness is also an abjected and stigmatised state. There are powerful social and psychological pressures to appear socially successful, and as we compare ourselves to someone we perceive as being more or less lonely (or popular) augmented by the increased use of social media, we may find ourselves becoming anxious and/or low. Loneliness is therefore something that young people, like others, may associate with mental ill health, hide or deny, and find difficult to talk about.

Young people’s experience of loneliness has been linked to key moments of transition, at times becoming chronic and possibly intensifying associations to social isolation. 

Key transition points associated with young people include:

  • Moving school / college / to university 
  • Moving from school to work
  • Leaving home / living independently
  • Dating and seeking or forming adult relationships

Aims

This project worked with youth co-researchers to include the voices of young people in discussions about loneliness. It explored new narratives of youth loneliness and knowledge, of both young people and people and organisations working with them. It developed the capacity of youth co-researchers to use creative methods to encourage meaningful conversations about loneliness. 

Methods

The work of a core group of 16 young people drawn from the 42nd Street programmes, was broadened out through further projects with young people from across Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke. The themes the co-researchers identified informed the creation of a piece of immersive theatre alongside:

  1. Building capacity of researchers to use creative methods to explore youth loneliness and co-produce the research agenda.
  2. Collecting and using data using creative methods to explore various experiences of youth loneliness; translating this into a theatre piece, Missing.
  3. Broadening the conversation: used Missing to share the findings with groups of young people across the UK.

Key findings

The social conditions and experiences of youth loneliness

Change and transition may impact on a young person’s ability to connect and may lead to loneliness. It is important to support young people during these times. Whether sexual, racial or cultural differences can create a sense of isolation. Poverty can impact on a young person’s ability to participate and feel like they belong. While social media presents additional pressures on young people, it also offers the possibility of connection and positive relationships. 

The drive for success can lead to loneliness, as well as the fear of failure and disappointing others. We need to diversify forms of success and ensure young people feel they are valued for who they are.

Young people and acts of friendship and connection

Young people find ways to support themselves and one another. Low-key offers of connection and companionship, especially at moments of difficulty or change, are valued and encouraged. Parks and open spaces provide opportunities for safe ways of being alone and for connection. 

Projects that make times and places for sharing interests, enthusiasms and many forms of creativity are also valued. Common spaces of all kinds can help young people to feel that they belong somewhere. Start the conversation and don’t give up on it; create opportunities for shared activities and interests allowing for connections without talking, or at least before the talk begins. Construct understandings of ‘friendship’ and what it involves; as well as what friends don’t do if they are to remain a friend. 

Many experiences are first time experiences; negotiating and navigating life as a young person with all of the additional pressures identified can be difficult, confusing and isolating. Raising awareness about this and the strategies that can be used to support young people, shows that loneliness does not have to be a bad thing or a permanent state. We can all help each other to connect. 

Key policy recommendations

From the findings of this project, the following policy recommendations have been made:

  • Develop new ways of thinking and talking about youth loneliness, beyond traditional medicalised discourse and towards more expansive understandings of youth and more inclusive ways of belonging.
  • Arts-based and creative methods create spaces and relationships where young people can find connections and navigate loneliness.
  • Restore youth work provision so that all young people have someone who knows and accepts them for who they are. Interventions need to go beyond individual funded projects and towards commons spaces and social movements.
  • Youth led social action allows the development of practical and political change, benefiting youth participants and their peers.