What can be done to tackle the scourge of loneliness among young people?
Youth organisations have recognised that isolation and loneliness is a large and growing problem among their beneficiaries, and many have produced guidance to help young people try to overcome their feelings.
Samaritans, the emotional support helpline charity, says the answer rests in building stronger communities, with strong social connections across all ages, where young people can access the support they need and where we are all equipped with the skills to listen to each other without fear of judgement or stigma.
Various charities have produced advice about how to approach the problem of loneliness among children and young people in local communities:
This information pack and toolkit is intended to enlighten NW coordinators about the issue of youth loneliness and encourage them to use the unique status of NW in the local community to raise awareness of the problem among residents. It also signposts NW members to existing services and platforms that they can either get involved with themselves or recommend to young people that they are in contact with.
1. Define your local loneliness issue
Try to identify who is at risk in your area. And make yourself familiar with how your local environment – buildings, streets, parks, amenities, transport infrastructure etc – can help or hinder efforts to enhance social connections. For example, are your local public spaces safe and welcoming areas where young people feel comfortable going to? Are your transport links effective at helping people move about and get to things?
Active travel and street play are the most sustainable approaches for delivering out-of-school activity for all children. Regular street closures for street play including resident involvement also lead to wider benefits including improved social cohesion.
2. Find out what services are already working to combat loneliness and isolation in your community
This should include charities, church groups, the local authority, schools, healthcare services etc.
The charity Home-Start provides services that help combat isolation; for instance, sending volunteers to visit and support families at home, or at group-based activities.
Be aware that many community-based interventions intended to reduce social isolation will not be identified as such – instead, they will be badged as shared activities and efforts to bring people together naturally.
3. Reach out to these services and explore whether your NW group might support them or partner with them in some way.
For example, some of your group’s members might be willing to volunteer with certain services. Many charities are crying out for volunteers. Organisations that work with children or vulnerable adults will have safeguarding and vetting policies and procedures in place for prospective volunteers.
Neighbourhood Watch also has its own safeguarding guidance for staff and volunteers: this should be followed as part of any engagement with children (anyone under the age of 18) or vulnerable adults. The safeguarding guidance can be found here.
4. Learn from other NW groups
Find out if your neighbouring groups are already doing good work in this area. Do they run community events or know of volunteering opportunities that you could emulate?
5. Combat the stigma associated with loneliness: talk about the topic
Interviews conducted by Samaritans among young people who struggled with feelings of loneliness found that stigma was a major barrier to seeking help. There was a sense that being lonely was in some way a failure, with many people embarrassed to admit to such feelings. Because it is felt to be almost a taboo subject, many young people felt unable to ask for help or didn’t know where to get help.
So, tackling stigma is critical to improving help-seeking for loneliness. Don’t be afraid to talk about the subject – with your community, your local NW group, with families and with young people themselves.
6. Listen to children and young people
Youth participation is about young people having a say and influencing change in decisions that affect their lives, organisations and communities.
Don’t just tell young people what to do: this is rarely an effective tactic. Young people are clear that asking someone directly to admit that they are lonely and if they would like some help is unlikely to work. But this doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them about the things they like doing or might like to do, and encourage them to come up with their own solutions. Some suggestions available activities that can stave off isolation and loneliness include:
- Volunteering for a charity, either on the front line or as a young trustee. Many charities are crying out for young trustees
- Serving on a local authority “Youth Cabinet” – these are often looking for children and young people to participate
- Joining a club or a Meetup group
- Playing sport
- Getting a job, if they don’t have one
In a recent analysis of people’s experiences of loneliness by the Office for National Statistics, suggestions by young people themselves for tackling loneliness included:
- Making it more acceptable to discuss loneliness at school and in society
- Preparing young people better to understand and address loneliness in themselves and others
- Creating opportunities for social connection
- Encouraging positive uses of social media.
7. Be aware of the role technology plays
Modern communications methods can be both a cause and cure for loneliness. Children and young people who are socially anxious can find online communication appealing because they can remain relatively anonymous. They can experiment with their identity and retain a sense of being in control. One study found that the point of online games is not to win, but to connect and experience a sense of virtual community.
But online platforms can also cause negative feelings. The Mental Health Foundation says that technology including social media could be exacerbating social isolation. Online bullying is alarmingly common among youngsters. The fear of missing out (known as FOMO) can also add to feelings of loneliness – seeing your peers’ posts where they are apparently having a great time without you can be upsetting and demoralising.
The government’s loneliness strategy adds this: “Social media is often highlighted as a cause of loneliness, particularly among young people, but research implies that the picture is more nuanced. The extent to which it increases or reduces loneliness could depend on which platform is used, and whether it is used as a substitute for real-life interaction or as a complement to it.”
To help young people navigate the social media landscape in a positive way, encourage them to pay attention to how their use of various social media platforms affect their mood. Suggest they try avoiding the ones that make them feel sad or anxious and see if those feelings subside.
Point them to the various online sites that contain advice for tackling feelings of isolation and loneliness: you can find these in the toolkit section here.