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Loneliness among young people: The shame-filled “mass phenomenon”

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Loneliness among young people: The shame-filled “mass phenomenon”

Loneliness has increased significantly among teenagers and young adults since the pandemic and is very widespread. “Loneliness is something like a secret pandemic,” said North Rhine-Westphalia Prime Minister Hendrik Wüst on Friday when presenting a study in Berlin. It is a “mass phenomenon” among teenagers and young adults.

The topic is relevant for society as a whole as a “new social question of our time”. The renowned loneliness researcher Maike Luhmann emphasized that it is important to focus attention on young people. She carried out the investigation with a team on behalf of the state government.

Among almost 1,000 people between the ages of 16 and 20 who were surveyed in North Rhine-Westphalia in autumn 2023, around 16 to 18 percent are very lonely, according to the study. Of the younger respondents – almost 1,250 eighth-graders between the ages of 13 and 15 – almost 4 to 11 percent could be classified as very lonely.

Psyche of children and adolescents

The ranges in the results arise because a separation was made according to gender and into two types of loneliness – emotional and social. Comparable nationwide data also showed increased, high levels of loneliness, said Luhmann, who also advises the federal government. There is little comparative data for young people, but an increase in Germany is clear, said the expert.

In total, around 2,200 young people in North Rhine-Westphalia were surveyed in the two separate surveys. If you add those in both age groups who are moderately or sometimes lonely, the numbers increase significantly. The analysis tended to identify slightly more female sufferers.

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Young people with particular personal or psychological stress and also young people who have experienced discrimination are at increased risk, explained the expert from the University of Bochum. The pandemic leaves its mark. Factors such as excessive consumption of digital media also played a role.

Facing loneliness early

And: “We found that those who stated that they had financial problems in their household were also more likely to be lonely,” emphasized Luhmann. “This is a Germany- and Europe-wide phenomenon, if not an international one.”

She reported: “We know from research that loneliness, when it becomes chronic, is associated with a whole range of negative consequences.” Consequences could include: disturbed sleep, social anxiety, depression, declining school performance, less exercise and activities.

Especially for young people, it is important to avoid long-lasting negative consequences including physical and mental illnesses. At the “Loneliness Forum” with experts, Wüst warned that loneliness must be addressed early. “The issue belongs at the heart of society.” The federal government is also currently working on a strategy.

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Emotional loneliness is the negative feeling of missing people you feel close to, of having no one to confide in. Social loneliness is the feeling of having too few contacts and friendships, of not belonging to any group. The study showed: The quality of friendships is perceived as more important than the quantity. Lonely is not the same as being alone, nor should it be confused with social isolation.

Loneliness is a painful feeling, but not negative per se: “It is also part of life experience and can have a positive function, because young people have to learn how to get out of it,” explains Luhmann. On the one hand, social media could be an important tool for starting communication or maintaining contacts. But: Loneliness levels are increased, especially among younger people who use cell phones, computers, etc. excessively.

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“Adolescence is a phase of reorientation, of finding identity, a very turbulent phase of life with many changes,” described Luhmann. Every move to a new environment also carries the risk that the contacts will not work out.

Strengthen social and emotional skills

Some could cope with their loneliness, while others responded with ineffective or harmful behaviors. Psychotherapist Franca Cerutti reported from her practice that the problem of loneliness is getting worse and is filled with shame. Anyone who feels very lonely as a young person will probably also have to deal with this as an adult without counteracting it.

The study advises that more knowledge should be imparted. Further tips: Strengthen social and emotional skills, create more meeting places and address young people where they are – i.e. at school and online.

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