Recently, we have been warned of the strain placed on university students by self-isolation and online learning.
The problem comes as no surprise for those of us working in the field of loneliness, where we know that it impacts mental health negatively, and young people themselves – who have been telling us that disconnection from friends and peers has been a real problem for them.
What is loneliness
Experiencing feelings of loneliness is normal and almost everyone will be affected by loneliness at some points in their lives. Loneliness is a whole mixture of painful feelings that arise in response to a person not having the friendships and social contacts they want, either in quantity, or in quality, or both.
Loneliness relates to both social relationships and to our sense of ourselves. It is not necessarily the same as being socially isolated – loneliness is internal, and it is quite possible that a person feels lonely, and yet is surrounded by people, or that they are alone and not lonely.
This means that there may not be obvious signs that a person is lonely. Young people may particularly struggle to make sense of and manage feelings of loneliness.
Often when we read about the effects of loneliness, it is in relation to health problems among adults, particularly those in old age. But, there is ample evidence that loneliness among young people is associated with increased depression and anxiety – suggesting that any societal changes that increase loneliness, such as the current lockdown measures, including online learning and self-isolation, will also increase mental health problems.
The pandemic strikes
The Covid-19 lockdown and other virus containment measures, including social distancing, have disrupted normal social interactions for most people. Young people have reported substantial increases in feelings of loneliness during the lockdown of 2020 and younger people seem to have been more lonely than older people.
Young people in the Teenagers’ Experience of Life in Lockdown (TELL) study said the following:
Sometimes I have felt lonely due to not seeing my friends and being able to have normal conversations about day-to-day life.”
I have felt incredibly lonely despite having what is honestly a great support system and being in the same household as one of my best friends.”
While adults often assumed that young people would find it easy to maintain their relationships virtually using phones and technology during the pandemic, that has been challenging for some.
Many young people said that interacting virtually just was not the same as being face-to-face, and they missed being with people physically. We know that touch and proximity are important in feeling socially connected, with recent work by the BBC showing that a lack of touch increased loneliness, and that seemed to be the case for young people we spoke to.
This is important information, because it can sometimes be easy to assume that younger generations are more comfortable with digital communication – evidence suggests, instead, that young people want to be with others face-to-face rather than digitally and, during the pandemic, have missed being in the physical proximity of others and be able to touch.
Young people also expressed concerns about returning to “normal” social interactions. They were worried that they would be less socially adept both in existing relationships and in creating new connections. Supporting young people, when things go back to some semblance of normal, will be crucial for their ongoing well-being.
The existing evidence indicates that getting “stuck” in loneliness is linked to mental health problems like anxiety and depression in young people. Loneliness has also been linked to poorer physical health and sleep problems in young people. Moving forward, we need to provide young people with support so they do not get “stuck” in the loneliness they have felt during lockdown.
In our recent work, we have been asking young people what they think would help them overcome loneliness. Findings from that work suggested that fostering climates of trust and connection is important for young people.
At university and at home, we can foster a climate of trust and connection. We need to set up spaces in which they can come together and reconnect socially to enable this. It is important that we are honest – we have all been through challenging things recently. Together, we can celebrate that we have managed to pull through.
We should have regular check-ins with ourselves, each other, and young people about how we feel and how we recognise how others feel. We can also help each other to feel included – in the words of a young person
Every time they see a lonely person, they could greet him, and therefore he would feel a little better because he would see that others care about him and that others notice him, and I guess he won’t feel alone anymore.”
We need to make it ok for young people to say they are lonely, and to be careful not to dismiss or minimise that experience. One way to do that is to talk openly about loneliness ourselves. We can explore what loneliness means and the forms it can take; for example, feeling lonely because we can’t play with others, feeling lonely simply because we are not with other people, feeling lonely because we can’t have those in-depth discussions with friends any more.
- Student services professionals could offer events where there are informal opportunities to interact, particularly for those who have recently started at university (first years) who may not already have social networks established themselves.
- Similarly, academics could be allowing space within formal taught programming for informal social interaction and connection, as well as openly talking about feelings of loneliness and social disconnection in the pandemic context.
- Students unions can also play a role in normalising feelings of loneliness and encouraging and providing opportunities for informally (re-)connecting virtually, and actually once virus containment measures allow.
Whatever is done, young people need space and time to (re-)build social skills. They need space and time to (re-)learn to be together in each other’s presence and to (re-)build dynamics with friends. Some young people who are struggling with loneliness may find it helpful to write their thoughts or concerns in a diary – this can help to put things into perspective and recognise the social connections they do have.
We created a resource for adults working with young people that encourages conversations about loneliness, challenging misconceptions, increasing resilience, and reducing stigma attached to loneliness. The key message is that education is not just about academic learning – it is about social connection too, and as educators, we have a responsibility to help young people to (re-)connect, whenever we can.