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24 Jan 2020

Loneliness, the Millennial Epidemic

January 24, 2020Health, Psychology, Therapy

Loneliness, the Millennial Epidemic

The British Government has publicly backed the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, (a commission set up before the MP Jo Cox’s untimely death in 2016), with cross-party support, having both a Conservative and a Labour MP co-chair the commission.

This backing will be costly, there is no doubt. As areas for improvement are highlighted across society, it will be expected that the Government will divert financial resources from somewhere to cover the costs of implementation of related projects, which is a very positive move.

But with the media regularly questioning austerity, with the NHS apparently being under-funded and with a scrutiny on Government spending, the question arises: what is so bad about loneliness that would cause our politicians create an alliance to publicly focus on an area of society that could cause criticism or contention, especially when it has been tolerated, or worse, ignored in the past?

Somewhat surprisingly, loneliness is incredibly expensive to society as a whole. It impacts commerce, being a major contributor to sickness days, it impacts the NHS because it creates or exacerbates illness and also causes many people to attend their local GPs just because they feel lonely, it impacts schools due to absence, and so on. The Jo Cox Commission estimates the cost to the economy to be £32 billion!

The statistics

It is believed that loneliness can be as dangerous to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (1). In fact, people suffering from a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as people with a low degree of loneliness (2). Moreover, Feeling lonely increases risk of death by 26% and doubles our risk of dying from heart disease (3).

It is estimated that 14% of the UK population – that’s 9 million people – suffer from loneliness: that number in itself indicates the financial impact that loneliness can have on society (4).

Beyond the financial impact, what about the well-being of those 9 million people? What can be done to alleviate the issues that cause loneliness? Understanding the underlying causes of this epidemic will help to develop and provide long-term remedies, but there are a multitude of causes, with many differences between age groups, as indicated by the following statistics (4):

43% of 17 t0 23 year olds experience problems with loneliness
50% of disabled people feel lonely on any given day
52% of parents have problems with loneliness
38% of people diagnosed with dementia have lost friends once diagnosed
58% of migrants and refugees are isolated and lonely
30% of people over 75 state their loneliness is out of control
80% of carers feel lonely as a result of looking after a loved one

It is sometimes assumed that loneliness is predominantly experienced amongst the elderly, the homeless, generally those disaffected souls who transparently experience social exclusion. However, this assumption is not quite accurate. There are also many people on the periphery that seem to go unnoticed. Feeling lonely whilst in a relationship or whilst being part of a family is not uncommon. Feeling lonely whilst part of a social network is also surprisingly common.

Many studies have been done on the loneliness of the elderly and it is assumed that a large causal factor is the death of loved ones and friends. Whilst this is true – and there are fairly obvious ways of dealing with this, including bringing those who suffer into new social networks, providing visitors who befriend the lonely, etc – the resulting statistics for this group and the less obvious groups is not particularly robust, according to the Jo Cox report, ‘Start a Conversation – Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time’.

And loneliness can be contagious! Dr Nicholas Christakis told the New York Times in a 2009 article on the Framingham study, one lonely person can “destabilize an entire social network” like a single thread unravelling a sweater.

“If you’re lonely, you transmit loneliness, and then you cut the tie or the other person cuts the tie. But now that person has been affected, and they proceed to behave the same way. There is this cascade of loneliness that causes a disintegration of the social network”. In fact, 52% of people are more likely to be lonely if someone they are directly connected to is also lonely (5).

Is technology play a part in loneliness?

It would seem there are many factors that contribute to loneliness, but one that is under-reported is technology-driven and the impact it has on the millennials. The advent of the internet and the ensuing social media revolution has obviously changed society enormously and doesn’t require explanation or description. However, when analysed in depth, the indications are that smart phones, tablets and PCs can create a high level of social isolation, with games and social media in particular providing the biggest impact.

Susceptible people can be taken in by fake news, can become obsessed by articles about health issues, can be cyber-bullied by their social networks, can be addicted to certain web content, can sit at their computers into the early hours chatting to so-called friends anywhere in the world, often never meeting them in person, can play games around the clock and can peruse auction and commercial websites purchasing goods on their credit cards.

All of this activity can cause the person to remain at home, often alone, sometimes not, creating an exponential level of loneliness. Real social networks begin to disintegrate, relationships begin to suffer, the person begins to isolate themselves from reality.

Loneliness has been associated with increased internet use and so it becomes a self-perpetuating downward spiral into deeper loneliness (6).

Dr Robin Dunbar of Oxford University believes you need between three and five close friends for optimal health, not those types of friendships that hide behind glass screens (7).

Socialising and loneliness

Mobile phones have a particular impact on personal relationships and friendships. It’s quite common to see a group of friends socialising, for example at a restaurant, to be staring at their phones while ordering, even whilst eating, with a conversation that is effectively irrelevant or even non-existent. Personal relationships can suffer, with one partner obsessing over their phone while the other sits in a detached state, probably wondering who is texting at the other end (even though their partner may not be texting).

The benefits provided by smart phones – text messaging, photos, social media, games, ie, their virtual world – seem to outweigh the importance of reality in the moment. The road to loneliness becomes clear: restaurant dates become few and far between, the trust in relationships begins to suffer and possibly breakdown, people begin to isolate themselves (8).

So, what did people do before Tim Berners-Lee effectively invented the internet? In the UK, pubs were always a very important social centre, but for many reasons including increasing tax, prices charged by breweries, business rates rocketing, salaries stagnating, increased internet use, the growing number of entertainment channels, etc, they have been closing year on year, with upwards of 23 pubs a week closing in 2017, accord to the Campaign for Real Ale.

Furthermore, churches were always a source of social cohesion, but according to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (9), church numbers in England have declined 1% each year since 1945 for various reasons, including the mortality of aging parishioners, a growing anti-religious society, secularism, etc.

There are clearly other examples of social decline that can be listed and where a vacuum exists it usually needs to be filled. In many cases for the millennial generation, the filling is done by habitual technological entertainment.

The Jo Cox Commission, supported by 13 related charities, has many excellent ideas to alleviate loneliness and repair the impact to society. Whether or not this will benefit the technological desolate it remains to be seen.


(1) Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) ‘Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review’, PLoS Med, 7(7), DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316, via Evidence Review: Loneliness is Later Life, Age Concern
(2) Wilson RS, Krueger KR, Arnold SE, Schneider JA, Kelly JF, Barnes LL, et al. (2007) ‘Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease’, Arch Gen Psychiatry, 64(2), pp. 234-240, via Evidence Review: Loneliness is Later Life, Age Concern
(4) Jo Cox – Start a Conversation

What are your thoughts on loneliness?