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New analysis on lonely young people

Young men are less lonely if they are in a romantic relationship, whereas young women appear to shield themselves from feeling lonely when they live with others. This is according to a new analysis conducted by DEFACTUM on behalf of The Mary Foundation.

We talk about them, and many well-meaning people want to help them – namely the growing number of adolescents and young adults who are lonely and not thriving. But who exactly are these young people? This is the question a new report called “Loneliness among young people” seeks to answer.

The first step is to look at how widespread the problem is. Twelve per cent of young people in Region Midtjylland (central Jutland in Denmark) feel extremely lonely. This statistic is higher than for any other age group. Among the 16 to 19-year-old age group, twice as many young women (16%) experience severe loneliness compared to young men (8%). This difference evens out for the 20 to 24-year-old segment, however, for which there is no significant difference between the genders.

Meanwhile, the analysis does show a gender gap when it comes to the correlation between loneliness and other social factors. Among young women, those living with other people experience loneliness to a lesser extent. For young men, however, being in a romantic relationship – whether new or established – appears to play a role in protecting them from feeling lonely.

“It is surprising to find that the prevalence of loneliness is low among young men who have a partner, whereas this factor has no relevance for young women. This suggests that a likely solution would be to expose boys to more dating. But it’s probably not that simple. Being in a romantic relationship presumably protects young men from feeling lonely. But at the same time, it may be easier for people who do not feel lonely to find a partner,” said senior researcher Mathias Lasgaard, who has produced the report.

Less surprisingly, the analysis also shows a strong correlation between loneliness and various indicators for poor mental health and mental health problems. In fact, as many as four out of every ten young people who feel extremely lonely also report being stressed, and one third show symptoms of depression and/or are affected by anxiety and tension.

As with the other age groups, being in school or working has an impact. If an individual is neither studying nor working, the risk of severe loneliness doubles.

A more uplifting finding is that most of the young people experiencing loneliness are not socially isolated. Seventy-seven per cent of young people who feel extremely lonely maintain contact with their friends daily or once or twice a week. By comparison, the equivalent statistic for non-lonely young people is 92%.

For The Mary Foundation, this new insight adds value to its efforts to prevent and eradicate loneliness among young people:

“There are numerous theories about young people’s experience of loneliness, but a relatively small amount of actual knowledge. This new analysis can help those of us who work to combat loneliness among young people to target our efforts more effectively. And the analysis is also a signal to all of us that lonely young people often maintain contact with others, so we should perhaps make more of an effort to talk about loneliness in general,” said Helle Østergaard, Director of The Mary Foundation.

FACTS
– from the analysis “Loneliness among young people”

  • 12% of 16 to 24-year-olds feel extremely lonely.
  • Loneliness is most commonly felt among young people, which is followed by the 85+ age group. The 65 to 79-year-old age group is the least lonely.
  • More young women than men feel extremely lonely – 15% of 16 to 24-year-old women versus 10% of men in the same age group. This difference evens out for the 20 to 24-year-old age group, however, for which there is no significant difference between the genders. Twice as many 16 to 19-year-old women (16%) as men (8%) feel extremely lonely.
  • The risk of feeling extremely lonely doubles for people who neither work nor study.
  • The risk of feeling extremely lonely also increases for young people who live alone or are not in a romantic relationship.
  • Young men without a partner are particularly at risk of feeling extremely lonely, whereas the risk is greater for women if they live alone.
  • 92% of young people who do not feel lonely get together with friends every day or once or twice a week. The equivalent statistic for young people who feel extremely lonely is 77%. In other words, even when young people feel extremely lonely, they often still maintain contact with friends.
  • Half of all young people who suffer from elevated levels of stress also experience severe loneliness. A quarter of young people experiencing severe loneliness also suffer from a chronic mental disorder. One third of young people who feel extremely lonely have elevated stress levels. Approximately four out of every ten young people who feel extremely lonely also suffer from insomnia or a sleep disorder.

Methodology
The thematic analysis is based on data from Region Midtjylland’s health profile analysis “How are you?” from 2017. The study is based on sample selection among people who had a registered address in Region Midtjylland as of 10 January 2017, and who were 16 years or older at the time. The sample of 52,000 individuals was extracted from the Danish Civil Registration System (CPR-registeret). Individuals included in the sample were randomly selected in relation to gender, age, education, ethnicity, etc. This thematic analysis is based on the responses from 3,790 young people aged between 16 and 24, who participated in the study. The response rate for this age group was 52%. 
How is severe loneliness measured?
This thematic analysis uses an abridged version of the validated UCLA Loneliness Scale, consisting of three questions that are developed for use in larger population surveys, known as the Three-Item Loneliness Scale (T-ILS).
The following questions are included in the T-ILS: 1) How often do you feel isolated from others? 2) How often do you feel that you lack companionship? and 3) How often do you feel excluded? The response options are 1) rarely, 2) sometimes and 3) often. The combined responses to the questions generate a scale ranging from 3 to 9. A high score indicates a high degree of loneliness.
Severe (extreme) loneliness is defined as a score of 7–9.

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