More than half of young women aged 16 to 24 have felt lonely, and almost one in every seven British children start secondary school feeling lonely “often”, new research has revealed.
The figures, which have been compiled for the first time by the Office for National Statistics, come amid growing concern about an “epidemic” of loneliness among young people.
More than a quarter of children who receive free school meals (27.5%) reported feeling lonely often – five times more than children who don’t receive them, the landmark report revealed.
Jonathan Ashworth MP urged people to pay attention to the figures, saying loneliness can have “a profound impact on a child’s health, wellbeing and future development.”
The shadow health secretary added: “As part of our commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of every child, Labour would fully focus on loneliness by recognising a cross departmental approach is key to improving happiness and wellbeing.”
When people feel lonely most or all of the time, it can have a serious impact on an individual’s well-being, and their ability to function in society Office for National Statistics
Ashworth, who is to chair a shadow working group on happiness and wellbeing, added: “We simply can’t ignore the epidemic of loneliness because it ruins lives and creates greater social isolation.
“Everyone, especially children and young people, should be given the opportunity to flourish as part of a secure and caring society.”
For the report, tests were carried out to measure the lived experiences of those feeling lonely, with participants asked questions about loneliness in different ways, including “how often do you feel that you have no one to talk to “, and “how often do you feel left out?”
Responses ranged from “hardly ever or never”, “some of the time”, or “often”.
Young people surveyed also noted a difference between being alone, which is understood as a physical circumstance and sometimes a positive choice, and being lonely, which encompasses disconnection with others and feeling excluded.
One 11-year-old boy described the difference as: “How many times you’re alone could be you’re at your house and there’s no one there. How many times you’re lonely could mean there’s people there but they’re ignoring you.”
Among children and young people living with a disability or long-term illness, nearly two-thirds said they sometimes felt lonely.
A 21-year-old woman featured in the ONS report said a “strict regime” and a personal assistant assigned to her made it challenging for her to develop friendships at college.
“I had to have someone following me around at all times, even though I didn’t need that. And that was made on my behalf, as a disabled person and that made me feel completely left out of the situation because I didn’t have the right to my own decision,” she said.
Loneliness was found to be experienced more often by children living in cities, with one in five saying they often feel lonely, compared with one in 20 of their counterparts living in towns or the countryside.
Meanwhile, children between 10 and 15 were more likely to feel lonely often if they were unhappy with their relationships with family and friends.
Other triggers for loneliness included mental health issues, being bullied, disability, bereavement, and the range of transitions experienced between those ages including exams, starting university and entering the world of work.
“When people feel lonely most or all of the time, it can have a serious impact on an individual’s well-being, and their ability to function in society,” the ONS said.
“As loneliness has been linked to poor physical health, mental health, and poor personal well-being, with potentially adverse effects on communities, it is an issue of increasing interest to policymakers at local and national levels.”
This is the first report of its kind from the ONS, and the data is the result of collaboration between the organisation and The Children’s Society in efforts to address data gaps for loneliness among children and young people.
Loneliness among adults is well-documented, with up to a fifth feeling lonely most or all of the time.
The ONS figures follow the launch of the government’s first loneliness strategy, which will see GPs being able to refer lonely patients to community and voluntary services by 2023.
Dawn Snape from the ONS said: “This is our first ever report on children’s loneliness, part of work we are doing to provide insight into this important social issue that can impact on people’s health and well-being.
“We’ve looked at how often children and young people feel lonely and why. An important factor is going through transitional life stages such as the move from primary to secondary school and, later, leaving school or higher education and adapting to early adult life.
“This work supports the government’s loneliness strategy, announced by the prime minister in October 2018.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.