Loneliness: it’s a problem many of us have dismissed as something we’ll only need to worry about when we’re older. Blinded by the stereotypical image of an elderly person sitting alone at home, not seeing a soul for days, we naively believe we’re immune. Indeed, when Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness in a bid to combat it, she must have imagined most beneficiaries would be in their later years.
But the issue of solitude among the young was thrust into the social spotlight last week. Research by the Office of National Statistics revealed that 16-24 year olds are more likely to be plagued by it than people aged 65 or older.
As seems to have become customary when discussing the countless woes of Generation Z, it is a primal instinct for some to make the internet – and social media in particular – the main scapegoat.
“The internet is making us more anti-social,” lamented Simon Kellner in the i. “Social media talks of ‘communities’ based on shared belief, but of course these aren’t communities in the real meaning of the word.”
It is disappointing that this ‘back in my day’ syndrome sees the web dismissed as a societal stumbling block, when in fact it should be being celebrated as a vital tool for communication. The sad truth is that, without it, lots of people would be even lonelier.
Growing up as an only child in rural Wales during the dawn of social media, I was lucky to have MSN and Bebo as my go-to means of staying in touch with school friends who lived in faraway towns. Although our conversations may have taken place virtually, not face-to-face, they helped stave off any feelings of isolation that would have overcome me had no such ways of keeping in contact existed.
We need to stop piling all of the blame onto the online world and focus on the more pressing reasons for young people’s remoteness.
There’s no need to look any further than our money – or lack thereof. It’s probably our shoddy financial situation that is causing a lot of young people to feel alienated.
Renting rather than buying is preventing us from feeling part of a community; we have no idea whether we’ll still be in the same home, with the same flatmates, in the same town, by the next month. Without the much-needed feeling of security and being able to put down some roots that buying provides, we’ll remain on the edge of community life.
Lacking a disposable income is another factor. It may sound like the ultimate first-world problem, but being forced to sit out of plans made with better-off friends because you can’t afford it can be isolating.
So, with these issues quarantining us in the real world, is it really any wonder that young people turn to online communities for company? Whether, like Facebook, they’re made up of real-life friends, or virtual ones like Reddit, they’re readily available for us to get our social fix no matter where in the world we are.
Next time you complain about a young person being glued to their phone, remember that it could be their lifeline from loneliness.