Lonely young people: how does loneliness develop?

When we think of loneliness, we may mainly think of the elderly, but young people can also feel lonely. Up to about 10% of all young people feel seriously lonely, according to research from 2016. If you are lonely, this affects how you feel: physically, mentally and socially. Loneliness can cause sleep problems, low self-esteem and depression. Before you know it, there is a negative spiral. What happens when you get lonely?

  • What is loneliness?
  • How do we measure loneliness?
  • The personal experience of loneliness
  • Lonely young people
  • How does loneliness develop?
  • Consequences of loneliness
  • Physical consequences
  • Effects on information processing
  • Loneliness is not the end


What is loneliness?

Loneliness is the negative feeling you get because you have fewer social contacts than you would like (social loneliness) or that your relationships are less open than you would like (emotional loneliness).

We humans are social beings who need each other. Some people need this more than others. Being alone is fine and can sometimes even be very nice. If you can enjoy yourself, you will feel better about yourself, because you are closer to yourself and you know better what you want. But alone is not necessarily lonely. You feel lonely when you feel no connection with the people or the world around you. If you feel the need to connect with others, is there someone you can turn to? Do you want to do something with others, do you know who you can do that with? If you want to pour your heart out, do you know who to go to? Lonely people have no one or think they have no one.

How do we measure loneliness?

Loneliness is often measured by self-report. Sometimes people are asked directly whether they feel lonely. But then there is a greater chance that they will give a socially desirable answer and therefore say that they are not lonely. A questionnaire is therefore more often used with questions about the extent to which people feel socially isolated or whether they can turn to others when they need it. These could be questions like: ‘There are people I can talk to well.’ or ‘I experience an emptiness around me.’. These questionnaires often contain a limited number of items and say more about loneliness within a certain group than they say about individual loneliness.

A study by Brandpunt (2018) shows that almost half of the young people interviewed between the ages of 13 and 20 indicate that they sometimes or often feel lonely . A large BBC study into loneliness (2018) also shows that many young people feel lonely or very lonely: 40% of 16-24 year olds.

The personal experience of loneliness

Feeling lonely is a personal experience. A feeling of loneliness can arise from the need for more contact (the social needs approach). The lonely feeling can also arise from the inability to actually make or feel contact (the behavioral or personality approach). And finally, it can arise from the perception or evaluation of the person in question when it comes to the quantity and quality of contacts. This weighing of the contacts in number and value can have a negative effect and then someone feels lonely (the cognitive processes approach).

Some people actually have few social and intimate contacts. Then we recognize loneliness more easily. Although this does not always mean that they are lonely. Others feel that the contacts they have are inadequate. They experience a lack of company and/or intimacy and therefore feel lonely. This can arise from a lack of social skills or from the nature of personality. It may also be the case that they negatively value the number and nature of contacts. Feeling lonely is very subjective. You can feel lonely even though you have many friends, because you miss a partner, for example (emotional loneliness). You may feel lonely because you have no one with whom you can share a particular interest. But it may also be that you don’t need more friends than that one friend you’ve known since primary school. People often know very well whether or not they feel lonely. Although people who are chronically lonely for a long time can feel so distant from their fellow human beings that they find this difficult to admit. Parents who have a good bond with their child often know well whether or not their child is (seriously) lonely (Lodder, 2016). As a parent you can trust this and it is in any case a reason to start a conversation with your child.

Lonely people often value the relationships they have as less personal. They are reluctant to call someone else their friend, even though this person considers them a friend. Unfortunately, this also perpetuates the feeling of loneliness. All the more reason to identify and tackle loneliness in time.

Lonely young people

People sometimes think that loneliness and adolescence are somewhat related. You look for the way to yourself and to others. You see your parents and other family less. You often have less contact with your friends from the past and have to build a new network, whether in high school, intermediate vocational education, college or university. Of course you sometimes feel alone, perhaps even lonely, they reason. This will go away on its own, they think. Actually, you can’t even call it loneliness. But that’s not right.

From feeling alone to feeling lonely is a small step for young people. Especially during puberty you are vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. You don’t have much life experience yet, so it’s difficult to deal with these kinds of feelings. And a lot is already being asked of you. You psychologically distance yourself from your parents and focus more on peers, especially as a young teenager in early adolescence. Yet you don’t always dare to be completely yourself among friends. After all, you really want to be part of it. By developing your identity, you also continually redefine the associated distance and autonomy. As a young person in mid-adolescence, you have separated from your parents and developed a more equal relationship with each other, if all goes well. But now you not only want to adapt, but also stand out from your friends. This can make you feel less connected to important others. That can make you feel lonely. Only when you find security in your identity and know and understand your own self and the autonomy of others, can you learn to tolerate the distance from others. And as an (older) adolescent, when you go to study or work, you take big steps. A lot happens and you meet a lot of new people, and you then have to determine what you want or can do with these contacts. Who do you want to belong to? Who do you want to build a friendship with? At this age, friendships are often very close. And therefore very important. A social life is very important. You see each other often, walk into each other’s houses and spend a lot of time together. You literally grow up together. Only later, when work, relationships, children demand a lot of time, does friendship change its character. Then it is precisely the type of relationship in which you do not have to see or speak to each other every day (anymore) to know that you can rely on each other. Before you know it, months have passed before you reach out again with a message or phone call. And it’s still good. The foundation for these types of friendships is often laid in adolescence.

Research shows that for adolescents the feeling of wanting to belong is (much) greater than for people in other age groups. A large circle of friends seems to be the ultimate. Of course, that does not mean that this applies to all young people. It is precisely when the need to belong is much greater than the level of satisfaction you experience with the social relationships around you that things go wrong and you can feel lonely. This is about personal experience, regardless of the actual numbers (Verhagen, 2018). For many teenagers and adolescents, feeling left out and rejected is (almost) the worst thing that can happen to them (Blakemore, 2018).

Loneliness is a major problem, especially for adolescents. Not only is the development of your social self central during adolescence , your personal self also develops. And that happens in interaction with others. Social control is also important for young people. Lonely young people largely avoid this, with all the associated risks.

How does loneliness develop?

Loneliness is not a static thing. From an evolutionary perspective, loneliness has a function. It is a signal from your body, such as pain, cold or hunger, that you need something. Loneliness is a warning from your body that you need other people. Just like other people need you too. When you visit people, you eliminate the loneliness and are rewarded with the feeling of belonging. That is, if you get there in time. Because loneliness also has another side. Because it is such an unpleasant feeling, you want to get away from it. Not everyone can respond to this negative feeling with a positive gesture towards others. You may feel abandoned by others.

You direct the negative feeling towards the other person: the others are nothing , you don’t need anyone. You become more egocentric and want less contact with others. Then you are focused on self-preservation. You avoid others because you fear rejection.
In addition, when you feel lonely, you become more focused on yourself , so you feel less need to make contact. As a young person you are already more focused on yourself and it therefore poses an additional risk that you may go too far in this regard.

John Cacioppo’s evolutionary model (Goossens, 2018) shows that feelings of loneliness trigger a process (Goossens, 2018). The first step is to step back and consider your options. The second step is to become hypersensitive to social cues, verbal and non-verbal. You are then more open to the possibilities of contact with others, but also to the possible threats that others may pose. The world becomes a more hostile place for you when you are lonely.
If, as an adolescent, you still have to acquire your place in a group, with all the uncertainties that come with this transition, and if your ability to properly recognize faces and emotions is allowed to develop even further, then these are risk factors for see and not the possibility, especially to feel distrust and have difficulty with trust. From this you can conclude that feeling distrust towards other people may be a very good reason to (learn to) make contact with others again.

Taking the step towards others offers the solution to loneliness. As a result, lonely feelings quickly dissolve. This makes you feel safer and more accepted. It is therefore important to address feelings of loneliness in a timely manner, otherwise you will perpetuate them. That sounds easy. If only that was it. But knowing is already something.

The attachment style, the way you learned to give and receive love in childhood, influences your relationships with others. It is therefore very possible that it also influences the development of any feelings of loneliness. If you are securely attached, you will more easily make contact with others within yourself. If you are anxiously attached, it is more difficult to approach people with an open mind. And if you are avoidantly attached, it is difficult to realize that you need each other. Your early emotions are always trying to catch up with you, so to speak, by causing you to view social situations through the lenses they put on you. If you realize that you cannot perceive yourself and others objectively, but that your experiences play a role, you can learn to deal with this consciously. Suppose you know that you are inclined to see the other person as pushy and suffocating when he or she asks if it would be convenient for you to drop by (avoidant attachment). Then, instead of responding negatively in shock, you can respond more neutrally and, for example, make an appointment for a visit. This way you don’t reject contact, which could lead to loneliness, but you keep it in your own hands.

Consequences of loneliness

The consequences of loneliness are diverse. Much is not yet known. Most research into the consequences of loneliness has been conducted in adults. While the consequences may be even more serious for adolescents, because they are still developing.

Physical consequences

Many studies show the negative effect of loneliness on health. Lonely people experience more stress. Because they see the world as a more unsafe place, in which other people are more of a threat than a comfort. In addition, lonely adults feel less fit. Cardiovascular diseases are becoming more common. Lonely adults more often have high blood pressure and also suffer more from inflammation, because the number of white blood cells in their bodies is lower. Research among middle-aged people shows that there is a link between the perceived level of loneliness and early death: severe loneliness predicted whether people were still alive a few years later (Goossens, 2018).
Adolescents who suffer from loneliness also indicate that they feel less fit and visit the doctor more often. Lonely adolescents fall asleep less quickly, sleep shorter and their sleep is more interrupted. Sleep is very important. For example, sleep problems are linked to feelings of depression and concentration problems. They may also suffer from suicidal thoughts, addictions and fears.

Effects on information processing

Loneliness causes a decline in executive skills. This includes the ability to make decisions, impulse control and the ability to plan and organize your emotions and behavior.
As mentioned, it also has a negative impact on social functioning. Loneliness makes you more focused on the negative in others, but also in yourself. Research in which students had to indicate whether a certain social interaction was positive or negative was rated faster and more negatively by lonely students than by students who were not lonely (Goossens, 2018). So it really does something to the way you process information and your perception of others. And yourself.

Some lonely adolescents have a negative self-image. The negative feeling of loneliness is then not only focused on the other person, but also on the self: the feeling that you are inadequate, that you are not worth it. This makes them less confident in their own skills, for example in the social field. They think they are less good at it, while their peers do not experience it that way. For other young people it may really be a matter of a lack of sufficient social skills. In any case, the fact is that it takes more effort for lonely young people to make contacts. They find it more exciting (higher stress level, higher blood pressure) than people who are not lonely. Many contacts you have are fleeting. You then have to consciously do something to turn them into meaningful contacts. That is not always easy. For some this does not come naturally. Especially when you feel lonely, the distance between yourself and others can be experienced as a real gap.

Loneliness is not the end

The causes for loneliness are diverse. It could even be that there are fundamentally different types of loneliness (other than those already described), if you look at the causes. But what exactly is it? The research has not yet reached that point (as of 2018). Fortunately, more and more attention is being paid to young people and loneliness. Also from a social perspective. The House of Representatives wants the Rutte III cabinet to draw up a similar approach for young people as for lonely elderly people. A motion to this effect was adopted by D66 and PvdA on November 20, 2018. And that is good news. This requires that loneliness be recognized. That you know what loneliness is and what it means. For yourself and for others.

Adolescence is a period in which the brain develops enormously, individual and social personal development takes place and you lay the foundation for your future life. Then loneliness is something that you cannot use and that you have to do something about. What you can do something about! But for this the adolescent must take action himself. And not alone! The environment and society must also get moving. They can watch without judgement, identify, understand, be ready, help. The taboo on loneliness is great, especially when it comes to loneliness among young people. Many young people are ashamed when they feel lonely. While loneliness should be a signal for change; a starting point not an end point. More attention to this important topic is a first step.

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