The long shadow of loneliness in adolescence
Loneliness can be understood as a painful emotion that arises when the quality or quantity of a person’s social relationships fails to match up with what they desire. It is different from solitude or isolation, in the sense that loneliness revolves around feeling alone rather than simply being alone. A person can feel lonely even when surrounded by others, particularly if they feel that they have nothing in common with those people, or that they are not understood or valued. Loneliness is not itself a mental health problem — some scientists argue that it actually serves a purpose, by giving us the urge to try and reconnect with others — however, it does frequently co-occur with many mental health problems, particularly in depression and anxiety.
I am a Postdoctoral Researcher at King’s College London and have spent the past 10 years studying loneliness and its implications for health and functioning. During my undergraduate studies, I had noticed that loneliness was mentioned fleetingly in psychology textbooks, but I was convinced there had to be more to the story. When I first began my PhD research in this area, loneliness was widely assumed to be something that mainly affected older people. It is understandable that people might make that assumption: events in the latter years of life such as the death of a spouse, difficulties getting out and about, or moving into residential care, can lead people to lose sources of companionship that they may have relied on for many years.
However, loneliness can affect people of all ages, and we now know it is particularly common in adolescence and early adulthood. This stage of life is a period of huge transition, when individuals are finishing school, moving out of the family home, potentially going away to university or entering the job market, and trying to establish their independence. Navigating these challenges is by no means easy, and this could leave them feeling alienated or isolated from their peers, family, or society in general. A 2018 report by the ONS found that half of people aged 16–24 reported feeling lonely at least some of the time, with around 10% saying they often or always feel this way.
Feelings of loneliness in adolescence are often temporary and would be expected to subside as circumstances become more favourable. However, some individuals can become trapped in a vicious cycle of loneliness. When you feel like you’re all on your own, the world seems like a more dangerous place, and every social encounter becomes a gamble. Lonely individuals are more likely to be wary of potential threats or betrayals from those around them, and this can become a barrier to building the positive and trusting bonds that would help them to feel less lonely. Hence, loneliness can become a feedback loop that burdens them for months or even years.
In a recent paper in the journal Development and Psychopathology, we investigated the timing and duration of loneliness in the adolescent years, and their implications for health and functioning at the onset of adulthood. The data came from the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study, a UK-based cohort of 2,232 individuals born in 1994–1995. Loneliness was measured at two stages of the study, when participants were aged 12 and 18. There is a lack of consensus on how long a person must experience loneliness in order for it to be considered long-term or chronic, but for the purpose of this study, we considered individuals to be chronically lonely if they scored high on loneliness at both these ages. We compared this group to those who experienced remitted loneliness (limited to age 12), new-onset loneliness (limited to age 18), and those who were not lonely at either age.
Approximately one-fifth of the sample had experienced loneliness either at age 12 or at age 18. Within this group, the tendency was to move in and out of loneliness over time: only a minority (2.4% of the sample) were lonely at both ages. These individuals were at increased risk for poor mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and use of mental health services. They also had poorer sleep quality and were more likely to be out of work. However, the same was also found for individuals whose loneliness had emerged more recently, and there was not a substantial difference between these two groups. Hence, there did not appear to be a cumulative load on mental health with longer durations of loneliness — instead, these problems co-occur with loneliness whether it is a recent development or something that has been ongoing for some time.
Meanwhile, individuals who had been lonely at age 12 but were no longer lonely tended to do better on these outcomes at age 18. However, they were more likely to finish school with low qualifications (either none at all, or nothing higher than a D at GCSE level), compared to children who had not been lonely. Hence, there seems to be something about experiencing loneliness at the beginning of secondary school that foreshadows future risk of poor educational outcomes, even if the loneliness is no longer ongoing. The mechanism of this is not yet clear, but mental health difficulties could be a plausible candidate. This builds on previous research in the same sample, which found that lonely young adults were more likely to be out of work and struggling with job-seeking, and a possible implication is that loneliness could be a force for downward social mobility.
A further implication of this study is that even children who are able to escape loneliness may still need additional support. However, given that loneliness goes hand-in-hand with diverse problems in mental health and functioning, tackling it in a timely manner should still be a priority, and in this age group the school environment could be an important setting for delivering interventions. An example of one such intervention is Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), which focuses on helping children develop their social and emotional skills. It is a universal intervention that all children in a school could receive, but the evidence suggests that one of its benefits could be reducing feelings of loneliness.
Loneliness can befall on people at any stage of the lifespan, and for a minority of people it can become a burden that stays with them for a long time. Our research shows that loneliness doesn’t occur in isolation so to speak, but is often part of a cluster of interrelated difficulties, with mental health problems being particularly salient. By preventing and reducing loneliness sooner rather than later, we can seek to prevent lonely young people of today from becoming the lonely older people of the future.