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January 2022

Loneliness and wellbeing in young people

Building our understanding of who and how young people are affected

Loneliness and wellbeing in young people
In partnership with

The group reporting the highest levels of loneliness in the UK is young people. Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a serious public health concern with robust links to mental and physical health, use of health and care services and early mortality.

While the evidence base on the causes, outcomes and interventions concerning young people and loneliness is growing, it is less developed compared to what we know about loneliness in later life. 

Contributing to the evidence base

To contribute to the collective understanding around loneliness and wellbeing in young people, this research project uses the social-ecological framework to explore risk factors at individual, social, and community and geographic levels and the relationships between them. It looks at adolescents aged 11-15 and young adults aged 16-24.

Through this work, we aim to:

  1. Identify risk and protective factors for loneliness in young people using the social-ecological framework 
  2. Examine mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools
  3. Examine links between loneliness, mental health and wellbeing
  4. Determine trajectories of loneliness during Covid-19

As part of the project, we will be publishing:

  • Four academic papers, one for each research aim
  • Evidence summary / technical report for the entire project
  • Policy and practice summaries
  • Thought-leadership articles building on our findings
  • Highlighting further research gaps and areas of exploration

Paper summaries:

Summary: A multilevel exploration of social ecological influences and geographic variation
Paper by Dr. J. Marquez, Dr. C. Goodfellow, Ms. D. Hardoon, Dr. J. Inchley, Prof. A. H. Leyland, Prof. P. Qualter, Prof. S. A. Simpson, Dr. E. Long

Summary written by Jelena Milicev.

Loneliness is harmful to the mental and physical health of people of all ages, but young people seem to be particularly vulnerable. Nevertheless, there is little knowledge about the factors underpinning this vulnerability. Using the social ecological framework, we explored how the risk for loneliness differs across demographic, social, community, and geographic factors. We analysed survey responses of 6503 individuals, aged 16 to 24 years, from the Understanding Society Study in the UK, to provide novel insight into the key factors related to loneliness among young people. We show how loneliness varies with sexual orientation, ethnic background, and geographic region, as well as with a range of social and community factors that could potentially be modified to tackle loneliness. 

We found that loneliness was lower among older young people, 20 to 24 years of age, compared to those aged 16 to 19, and among those of minority ethnic background, compared to White British. 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. 

In terms of social factors, going out with friends, having a greater number of close friends, a larger proportion of friends of similar age, and a larger proportion of friends living in the local area were all linked to reduced loneliness.

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. 

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. In addition, the effect of gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation on loneliness differed across the areas. Young people in Wales felt less lonely than their peers in England. Meanwhile, there were no significant differences between urban and rural areas of the UK. 

Our findings are valuable for the development of targeted public health interventions, highlighting key individual factors, such as sexual orientation and ethnic background, as well as a range of social and community factors that play a role. 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.

Find the full paper Read the full paper.

Summary: Loneliness and personal wellbeing in young people: moderating effects of individual, social and community factors
Paper by Claire Goodfellow, Deborah Hardoon, Joanna Inchley, Alastair H Leyland, Pamela Qualter, Sharon A Simpson, & Emily Long

Loneliness is that unpleasant emotion we experience when we feel isolated and disconnected from the world around us. People who often feel this way also have poorer personal wellbeing, which is to say that they may not be experiencing their lives as enjoyable and worthwhile as those who feel more connected to others. Although loneliness is most common among young people, we know very little about how it affects their wellbeing. In an attempt to understand this relationship, we analysed Community Life Survey answers of 965 young people in England, aged 16 to 24. In accordance to the socioecological theory, we looked at different levels of influence, such as individual, social, and community factors.

It did not come as a surprise that those who felt more lonely were also more likely to experience poor wellbeing. In addition, some individual characteristics were also connected to wellbeing. Full-time students reported higher wellbeing, while individuals in poor physical health and those with caring duties had poorer wellbeing, regardless of how lonely they felt. Similarly, community factors played an important role, as those 16–24-year-olds who had a sense of belonging to their neighbourhood, often chatted to their neighbours, and felt they could trust them reported higher levels of personal wellbeing. However, the effect of loneliness on personal wellbeing was not the same for all, as some factors played a protective role. Namely, young people who often chatted to their neighbours or felt they had friends they could count on reported better wellbeing than their equally lonely peers.

These findings suggest that personal wellbeing of young people may be improved by helping them foster supportive relationships and get more involved in the community.

Read the full paper.

Summary: The prospective relationship between loneliness, life satisfaction, and emotional distress before and during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in the UK
Paper by Jelena Milicev, Pamela Qualter, Claire Goodfellow, Joanna Inchley, Sharon Anne Simpson, Alastair H. Leyland, Kalpa Kharicha & Emily Long

While the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with a deterioration of mental wellbeing across the globe, prevalence of mental ill-health generally returned to the pre-pandemic levels by mid-2020. In turn, negative trends in the UK seem to have been more prominent and longer lasting. Nevertheless, there is little knowledge about how specific mental health outcomes changed from the pre-pandemic levels and how they interacted during the pandemic. Focusing on loneliness, life satisfaction, and psychological distress, we analysed Understanding Society survey responses from 3475 adults in the UK (aged 16-94) to understand the changes that took place from 2017-19 through the first eight months of the pandemic (April-November 2020) and the individual, social, and community factors that played a role.


We found that individual risk factors for loneliness and psychological distress before the pandemic (2017-19), were being under 25 or over 65, being female, and/or single, and having a medical condition that required shielding during the pandemic. Social factors that increased this risk were small circle of friends and small number of friends of the same age and ethnicity. In terms of community risk factors, we saw that people who described their neighbourhoods as poor-quality were more likely to experience loneliness and psychological distress than those who perceived their local area more positively. Unsurprisingly, women and adults under 25 and over 65 were less satisfied with life than men and people of other ages. Better neighbourhoods and more friends were also linked to higher life satisfaction.


Compared to the pre-pandemic levels, there was a small increase in loneliness and psychological distress during the first 8 months of the pandemic, and a decrease in life satisfaction. All three outcomes were closely related and changed at a similar rate during this time. Nevertheless, these changes did not happen at the same rate for everyone. Those with more friends reported feeling lonely sooner in the pandemic, while those with a medical condition that required shielding took longer to start feeling lonelier than usual. Females and people from poor quality neighbourhoods experienced a more rapid reduction in life satisfaction, while this happened at a slower rate for those over 25 and those with a higher number of close friends. Nevertheless, none of the factors we considered played a role in the rates of change of psychological distress.


In conclusion, females and people living in low quality neighbourhoods were more vulnerable to poor outcomes, both prior to and during the pandemic. We argue that examining and addressing the factors that underpin the accelerated deterioration in their life satisfaction, such as unemployment and childcare, may improve these groups’ outcomes. As having more close friends played a protective role in the period between 2017 and 2019 but became a risk factor during the pandemic, we highlight the importance of providing guidance and support for safe social interactions through the varying levels of risk during the pandemic and as we emerge from it. Finally, we stress the benefits of interventions to encourage neighbourly behaviours and familiarity within low quality neighbourhoods, which may moderate the negative effect on loneliness, life satisfaction and psychological distress.

Read the full paper.

Summary: Mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools
Paper by Claire Goodfellow, Malachi Willis, Joanna Inchley, Kalpa Kharicha, Alastair H. Leyland, Pamela Qualter, Sharon Simpson, Emily Long

Loneliness is known to have a negative impact on the mental health of young people. Loneliness is especially high among adolescents, and loneliness and poor mental health are dual public health concerns amongst this age group. 

Although loneliness is most common among young people, and we know that it can impact on mental health, we know less about how the school a young person attends might impact on the relationship between loneliness and mental health. To better understand this relationship, we analysed data from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, collected in 2018 from 5,286 young people in Scottish secondary schools.

As expected, we found that increased loneliness was associated with poorer mental health. We also found that being of female gender was associated with poorer mental health. In contrast, better physical health and greater life satisfaction were associated with improved mental health. 

Social factors were also strongly linked to young peoples’ mental health. Good family communication, an increased sense of family support, eating family meals together more frequently, increased teacher support, and a greater enjoyment of school were all associated with higher mental health. However, several factors were associated with poorer mental health. These include, being bullied, a preference to communicate online, increased use of social media to contact friends and family, and a greater sense of school pressure.

In terms of schools, the school a young person attends does account for some of the difference in levels of young people’s mental health. For young people who are experiencing loneliness, we found that the school they attend matters more for their mental health. Additionally, the negative impact of loneliness on mental health was especially strong in schools where average levels of mental health were already low. 

We suggest that whole school approaches to mental health are important in promoting mental health, and these may be particularly important for lonely young people. Interventions aiming to reduce loneliness are also likely to be particularly impactful in schools where average mental health is low. 

Read the full paper

The project, which is led by Dr. Emily Long (MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow), is a secondary data analysis initiative using data from the Understanding Society, Community Life Survey and WHO’s Health Behaviour in School-aged Children. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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In this project

Blog - April 2023
Key insights
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Project overview - April 2023
Loneliness and wellbeing among adolescents and young adults
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Full report January 2022
A multilevel exploration of social ecological influences and geographic variation
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Full report April 2022
Moderating effects of individual, interpersonal, and community factors
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Full report May 2022
Loneliness, life satisfaction and psychological distress before and during Covid-19
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Full report January 2023
Mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools
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Blog by Dr Claire Goodfellow
Loneliness in young people: mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools
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Blog by Dr. Kalpa Karicha
Loneliness in young people: what are the risk factors?
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