Latest BBC research determined that young people are experiencing the highest levels of loneliness in society. This revokes the common perception of the elderly as the most affected by the ‘human condition’. From a health perspective loneliness is on a par to health problems, such as smoking and is correlated to risk-taking behaviour. What does this say about young people in 2018? Why are more and more young people feeling lonely? What is the role of youth centres in tackling this issue, and can we do more to help them?
Loneliness — a by-product of social media … ?
How many ‘friends’ do you have on Facebook? What about your followers on Instagram or those on Twitter? As high as this number can be online, quantity does not trump quality, especially when it comes to human relationships. Even more so, social media can significantly hinder the quality of one’s relationships — we’re all aware there is a difference between texting and face-to-face conversations. And the key lies in the emotional and subconscious connection we establish with the people around us. Lack of this type of human connection is one of the factors contributing to loneliness.
… Or of unsustainable relationships?
Logically, the solution to this problem is to ‘go out there’ and to look for people with similar interests to yours — hopefully a friendship will begin. This is not a sustainable solution, though. Loneliness results not only from lack of face-to-face communication, but also from not being understood and appreciated by the people in one’s social network. On top of this, high expectations of one’s relationships with others exacerbates these feelings even more! What young people seem to long for are meaningful connections.
The Role of Youth Centres
Identifying the problem is not as simple as expected — hence, finding a solution to tackle loneliness and effectively implementing it calls for some serious efforts. Fortunately, youth centres are willing to go the extra mile to help young people in this battle. Following BBC’s staggering conclusion for young people, one of the largest youth organisations in the UK — UK Youth — conducted their own study on loneliness. By gathering data from local and national youth centres around the UK, their study determined that 82 per cent of youth workers agreed that loneliness is an issue for the young individuals they work with. Additionally, 73 per cent of centres’ employees report that young people do not tend to look for help when they need it. Why do these numbers matter? Well, if the majority of young people approached by youth workers are firstly lonely, and secondly not willing/able to seek help, then we are seeing a portion of society, in an extremely vulnerable position. In their pursuit of meaningful relationships and desire to find their place in society, young people are easily susceptible to radicalism and gang behaviour, according to UK Youth’s study.
So, what actions have youth centres undertaken and is their impact significant?
The answer to the first question lies in the functionality of youth centres — they provide an alternative setting for young minds to flourish, surrounded by positive role models. Young people can calmly engage with others in a safe environment, which facilitate a sense of belonging. The most important aspect, though, is the possibility to obtain help from youth workers. There, they can equip adolescents with the tools to deal with feelings such as loneliness, or if they are unable to help them, they can refer them to specialists. Namely, through these preventative measures there is at least a chance for young people in need to be navigated in the ‘right’ direction.
Intuitively, the answer to the second question should be yes. But in order for youth centres to harness their impact, they need to overcome significant barriers. Firstly, there is the issue of accessibility, which is closely related to government funding. Inability or difficulty in accessing youth centres’ services could discourage young people from seeking help when needed. And even though mere availability does not completely determine one’s decision to reach out, I believe that being aware of alternatives and youth workers’ desire to help, could potentially enhance the probability of young people reaching out. The evidence is out there, but we are still waiting for a proper response from the Government. Youth centres around the UK are combining efforts and constantly exchanging ideas about potential solutions. But impact can only be harnessed by a stable line of communication with policy-makers and a response from this group to young people’s needs.
Another barrier is lack of training and understanding of the root causes of loneliness amongst adolescents from the side of youth workers. I see the former as partially resulting also from sacked funding to youth services. Inability to understand, to relate and to listen occurs on a human level — you can’t throw money at people and expect them to understand more. Perhaps reminding ourselves that loneliness is not a designated experience for young people and that all of us have gone through it, might prompt more of us to volunteer at youth organisations, in order to help those in need.
Hopefully, combined efforts and motivation from youth workers around the country, such as the ones I witnessed during UK Youth’s 2018 Conference will be drivers of long-lasting change.