WWCW_Loneliness and Wellbeing Among Adolescents and Young Adults

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: College of Social Sciences

Abstract

Loneliness is increasingly recognized as a serious public health concern, with research demonstrating links to poor physical health, increased use of health care services, and even early mortality. Although loneliness has historically been viewed as an issue amongst older people, recent research has shown that loneliness can affect individuals across all age groups, and that the effects accumulate across the lifespan. Within the last year, the UK Government released its first Strategy for Tackling Loneliness, which highlights the need for a better understanding of how loneliness develops, particularly for different groups of people. As a result, research on loneliness within adolescent and young adult populations would allow for early identification of risk and protective factors for loneliness, which subsequently informs the design of public policy aimed at alleviating loneliness.

In the proposed study, we aim to examine individual, social, and environmental influences on loneliness within both adolescent (age 11-15) and young adult (16-24) populations. We will use data from three large datasets that cover the entirety of the UK, therefore providing a comprehensive profile of loneliness in young people in Britain. The study will identify factors associated with loneliness, and examine how those factors unfold in different contexts. For example, the research will determine if the strength of risk or protective factors differs across different areas of residence. This contextualized approach will provide a more nuanced understanding of the mechanisms through which individual-level and community-level factors affect loneliness. In addition to analysing loneliness as an outcome, the proposed project will also explore the impact of loneliness on personal wellbeing and mental health. The study will pay particular attention to the relationship between loneliness and related aspects of social wellbeing, such as social isolation and social support, in predicting wellbeing among young people. In addition, the project will identify sociocontextual factors, such as gender or family relationships, that modify the relationship between loneliness and mental health.

The proposed project offers a substantial contribution to UK research on loneliness and wellbeing, and offers clear strategies for public policy efforts. Importantly, the identification of malleable targets for intervention in an adolescent and young adult population allow policy efforts to start much earlier, having the potential to reduce prevalence of loneliness, and improve personal wellbeing and mental health at the population level.

Planned Impact

Loneliness is increasingly recognized as a serious threat to population wellbeing within the UK. In 2018, the UK government released the nation's first Strategy for Tackling Loneliness, which calls for the need to expand the evidence base around loneliness across the lifespan. Though substantial research has investigated loneliness among older adults, much less is known about the circumstances surrounding loneliness in younger populations. Thus, this project seeks to identify individual and community-level factors associated with loneliness during adolescence and young adulthood, and elucidate the complex associations between social relationships, mental health, and wellbeing. As such, beneficiaries of this work will include a diverse group of stakeholders, including:

Policy and practice: The findings from this project will offer insight into effective strategies to alleviate loneliness, therefore being of direct benefit to a range of policy, practice, and third-sector organisations. We have convened a Stakeholder Steering Group (SSG) spanning the policy/practice system for maximum impact. For example, our SSG includes organizations that work directly with young people (Mental Health Foundation), provide health care services (NHS Health Scotland), and work to improve community environments (Street Games). These stakeholders will work collaboratively with project investigators (see Pathways to Impact for details), therefore providing an opportunity for stakeholders to exert influence on the direction of the project. Importantly, the project will examine factors at the individual, social, and environmental level, thus highlighting potential avenues for policy and practice development across a variety of domains. Further, the project will examine how loneliness and wellbeing differ across groups of people, therefore identifying vulnerable communities in need of heightened levels of intervention (e.g., who to target in social awareness campaigns, social prescribing connector schemes, standard screening for loneliness in General Practitioner visits).

Academic community: The findings will benefit a varied group of academic researchers, including those in disciplines such as public health, developmental psychology, and mental health. Researchers will benefit from an advanced understanding of the factors associated with inequities in loneliness and wellbeing, as well as important distinctions between loneliness and other aspects of social wellbeing. Given the dearth of empirical evidence surrounding adolescent and young adult loneliness, the project will enhance the profile of social science research within the UK.

General public and young people: Project findings will impact the general public and young people through the identification of risk and protective factors for loneliness. Given that a focus throughout the project will be on the examination of modifiable factors, and therefore novel targets for intervention efforts, the general public, in particular young people, will benefit from anticipated changes to policy stemming from the findings of the project. Loneliness as a critical public health concern within the UK has been picked up by national news media, and we therefore anticipate that findings from this study will be of heightened public interest.

Publications

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