Impact of Loneliness in Young Adults in Modern Britain – Findings from a Cohort Study

Posted on:August 11, 2020
Last Updated: August 11, 2020
Time to read: 4 minutes

Dr Timothy Matthews is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, London. His research focuses on social isolation and loneliness. The article is based on the talk by Dr Matthews at RCPsychIC2019. 

It is important to highlight that when we discuss loneliness, we are talking about the social relationships a person has, compared with the social relationships they would like to have, and feeling that existing relationships are often superficial or inferior.

Loneliness can thus, be defined as the feeling that one’s desired quantity or quality of social connection is unfulfilled. [Matthews T et al., 2019]

Loneliness is distressing, and over time, loneliness is associated with an increased risk of mental and physical health problems.[Cacioppo et al. 2010, Hawkley et al. 2010, Pressman et al. 2005, Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015] 

Assumptions of loneliness are being challenged, and the evidence reveals it is the 16-24-year-old age group who feel lonely more often than any other age range. However, data collected online could mean that fewer older people take part in surveys, thereby not providing an accurate measure.[Dykstra. 2009]  

Chronic loneliness which takes hold early in the lifespan could have a deleterious effect on an individual’s health, and research is being focused on this period of life to build a picture of the lives of lonely young people. 

The E-RiSK study

  • The E-RiSK study is an environmental risk longitudinal twin study that aims to document the profile of loneliness in young adults born in the UK in the 1990s across multiple domains of functioning, looking at mental health, physical health, lifestyle habits, employment and childhood experiences. 
  • The study is a birth cohort of 2,232 individuals born in England and Wales in 1994 and 1995

Impact of Loneliness on mental health, physical health, lifestyle habits, employment and childhood experiences:

Mental Health:

  • Correlates of loneliness in mental health revealed positive associations for depression, anxiety, ADHD, conduct disorder, alcohol dependence, cannabis dependence, self-harm, and suicide attempts. 

Loneliness was most strongly associated with depression and anxiety, the odds of which more than doubled with a one standard deviation increase in loneliness.

Physical Health:

  • Loneliness was unrelated to BMI or CRP in this age group, although other studies have shown an association here.
  • Loneliness, however, was associated with risk behaviours that predict future ill health: e.g. less day-to-day physical activity and were more likely to be daily smokers.

Lonelier young adults had lower overall life satisfaction, reported more problematic technology use, and used more negative strategies to cope with stress, such as withdrawing and obsessing about problems rather than seeking help or taking pragmatic steps to rectify the situation.


  • Lonelier young people were more likely to be NEET (not in employment or educational training) or had lower qualifications (no higher than GCSE grades D-G).
  • For job market preparation, lonelier individuals rated themselves lower on personal attributes such as leadership, teamworking and problem-solving but not lower for practical skills (e.g computer programming).
  • They were less optimistic about their ability to succeed in life.

Childhood Predictors of Loneliness:

  • Higher levels of neuroticism
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Experiencing bullying or social isolation in childhood

Addressing loneliness in younger individuals is important to prevent negative physical, mental health outcomes in the future. Loneliness is not simply a problem of old-age. However, simply increasing contact is not the solution as individuals may still be lonely ina group setting.

A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness indicates that the most successful strategies involve addressing destructive patterns of social cognition in a counselling or psychotherapeutic  setting. 

Particular focus is required for children who experience problems of an internalising nature, or who are bullied or isolated by their peers.