Who is most at risk?

Anyone can experience social isolation, but particular groups of young people or individuals may be at more risk. The Campaign to End Loneliness says that loneliness is not about personality but more likely to be driven by factors such as health and economic status.

The Office for National Statistics report National Measurement of Loneliness: 2018 found that younger adults (aged 16-24) were more likely to report being lonely compared to every older age group (every age group from 25-34 to 75+), and that women were more likely to report being lonely than men. Other factors related to loneliness that are relevant to young people included being a renter rather than a homeowner and having a weak sense of belonging to the local neighbourhood.

An analysis of the Community Life Survey 2016 to 2017, and of the Good Childhood Index survey in 2018, revealed that among children aged 10 to 15, those that received free school meals were much more likely to say they often felt lonely (27.5 per cent), than those who did not (less than 6 per cent).  However, analysis by the Children’s Society found that children from the highest-income households also struggle with loneliness, leading the charity to surmise that “it could be that an important factor at work is inequality, rather than exclusively low-income”.

According to Public Health England, the risk factors for social isolation among children and young people can be from life events or socially ascribed identities, such as those related to gender, ethnicity, sexuality or physical appearance. Children who do not conform to local norms of appearance, language or behaviour may face difficulties integrating into peer groups at school, potentially leading to social isolation and a greater risk of being bullied.

An Action for Children survey in 2010 of 3,000 eight to 12-year-olds found that a third said they had seen children who didn’t seem to have any friends at school or at home. And nearly half said that children who show signs of neglect – dirty, smelly or hungry – were likely to be bullied or ignored.

Respondents also said that periods of transition, such as the move from primary to secondary school, and from secondary school to higher education, were common triggers for loneliness.  Survey data from children shows an increase in more frequent loneliness at around 12 years old. Going away to college or university for the first time can also be an isolating experience for some young people. Institutional cultures have traditionally been dominated by white middle-class males, and this can particularly make those who do not identify as part of this group, feel out of place.

At the same time, being a young person who is not in education, employment or training (known as NEET) can also increase the risk of loneliness. The Youth Index published by the Prince’s Trust in 2015 found that 13 per cent of young people reported feeling too anxious to leave the house and this increased to 35 per cent among NEETs.  More than third said they often feel anxious about everyday situations, and this rose to half of NEETs. A fifth said that they “fall apart” emotionally on a regular basis; rising to a third for NEETs.

Children in care, who are removed from family networks, are also at greater risk. Such children are often separated from siblings, and are moved about between care placements and schools, making it difficult to make new friends or maintain relationships. Once young people leave care and move onto independent living, their sense of loneliness and lack of support can increase further. In a Centre for Social Justice study, three-quarters of care leavers said that feeling lonely or isolated was difficult when leaving care. 

Young people who care for others have an increased risk of social isolation too, because they often don’t have the time to invest in fruitful friendships. There are a substantial number of young carers in the UK: the 2011 Census found nearly 178,000 carers aged five to 17 in England and Wales. Of these, 54 per cent were girls and 46 per cent boys. Surveys of young carers have found substantial numbers reporting stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.

Girls most at risk of teenage pregnancy include those who dislike school and those who come from a socially disadvantaged background (both of which are associated with an increased risk of social isolation). Teenage pregnancy can in turn bring stigma and material deprivation; both of these may increase the risk of social isolation for parents and children.

Young parents and parents with mental health problems are also at higher risk of loneliness, according to Action for Children. Young parents may struggle to adapt to a new routine and feel isolated and alone.

Several studies show that obesity in childhood and adolescence can result in low self-confidence and can limit the ability to make friends; obese youngsters are also at greater risk of being bullied than those of average weight.

Young people are also at greater risk of becoming socially isolated if they are not heterosexual.  Research by Stonewall found that two-thirds of homosexual and bisexual secondary school children had been subject to homophobic bullying; this was the second most common type of bullying after bullying because of weight. LGBTQ people suffer disproportionately more mental health problems than heterosexual people, and transgender people are at particular risk. The 2012 Trans Mental Health Study found that 35 per cent of transgender people had attempted suicide, 88 per cent suffered from depression and 53 per cent had self-harmed.

Ethnicity can also be associated with increased risk of social isolation among children and young people. A report by Barnardo’s in Northern Ireland found that children from ethnic minorities face racially motivated bullying and harassment at school.

Disabled children, children with special educational needs or a long-term health condition are also at increased risk of being bullied at school and reporting feeling lonely.

In conclusion, children and young people can be at greater risk of social isolation and loneliness if they:

  • Show signs of neglect or have difficult family relationships
  • Are recently bereaved or ended a relationship
  • Are disabled
  • Are overweight
  • Are in or leaving care
  • Are a young carer
  • Are a young parent
  • Being bullied because of their sexuality or ethnicity
  • Suffer from mental health problems
  • Recently changed schools
  • Recently moved on to higher education
  • Are not in education, employment or training (NEET)