Loneliness in childhood
This briefing explores how loneliness relates to children's subjective well-being and their material circumstances. Based on interviews and focus groups with 10-17 year olds, we make recommendations on how to reduce loneliness and improve the well-being of children.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and the subsequent publication of the Government’s loneliness strategy have resulted in an unprecedented focus on loneliness in the UK and a wide ranging conversation about what can be done to tackle loneliness across society.
The Government strategy defines loneliness as:
A subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.
In order to tackle loneliness we must understand both the extent of the problem and be able to measure any change. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has recommended four questions for use when measuring loneliness among adults, and last year we worked with the ONS to establish a similar set of questions suitable for children and young people.
The statistical data about loneliness contained in this briefing was collected as part of our ongoing research programme into children’s subjective well-being, the findings of which we publish annually in our series of Good Childhood Reports. It was collected through our annual household panel survey.
Children aged 10-17 completed the household survey in May and June of 2018. It collected data from children on their well-being and experiences of loneliness together with information from parents on household circumstances, such as income. The survey covers 2,000 households in England, Scotland and Wales, and is socio-economically representative.
Recommendations based on findings
Below are some initial recommendations aimed at reducing loneliness and improving well-being among children.
- Children identified the importance of strong relationships in tackling loneliness. Those looking to tackle loneliness among children should consider how they could strengthen family relationships. This could be through providing activities for families to spend time together. For families facing specific challenges family therapy should be easily accessible. More support for parents with their parenting skills could be effective, particularly for those with older children as parenting support is often aimed at new parents.
- Relationships with friends are important. Those looking to tackle loneliness could consider how to support children to build strong friendships, possibly targeting support at children who might struggle to make and sustain friendships like those who are experiencing homelessness, children with learning and/or physical disabilities, or children in care, for example.
- Other relationships with positive adult role models could be effective in addressing loneliness and low well-being. Those looking to tackle loneliness could consider providing befriending or mentoring opportunities for adults to support children who might be struggling with loneliness, or could consider volunteering opportunities for young people to befriend older people.
- The three recommendations all speak to the importance of community building. Youth services, children’s centres, green spaces and safe neighbourhoods free from crime and anti-social behaviour all have a role to play in reducing loneliness and improving children’s well-being. However, it’s important to recognise the role this kind of provision plays in context. Cuts to local government mean that many of these services are increasingly threatened or are already seriously reduced.
- Loneliness was linked to low well-being and as a result could be an indicator for future mental illhealth although much more research would be required to establish this link. In many areas, it is very difficult for children to access support for their emotional health unless they meet the clinical threshold of NHS mental health services. Commissioners should consider how they can provide early and easy access support which does not require an appointment, or a diagnosis, and provides children with a safe environment to talk about what is troubling them. At The Children’s Society we provide services like this through our easy access drop-in hubs for emotional and mental health support. Support like this could also be delivered digitally.
- Bullying was a significant concern for young people in the qualitative data but quantitative data did not allow us to triangulate this. Quantitative research into bullying and loneliness would be useful to help further understand the relationships between these issues.
- Schools should have a whole-school approach to improving well-being that includes a comprehensive approach to prevent and tackle bullying. Schools should also consider how they might poverty-proof the school day, in a non-stigmatising way so that all children can participate in school life equally. We also recommend that the Department for Education fund access to counselling in every secondary school as a matter of urgency so that those who are struggling can easily access early support.
If you'd like more information on loneliness in young people, read the full report.