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.
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