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Young people and loneliness: ‘What happens when we fail?’

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“There can be so much disappointment and loneliness because we are encouraged to aspire and have ambitions – and then what happens when we fail?

“Maybe exam results aren’t good enough. The ideal you’ve been built up for – like being a footballer, being a doctor – doesn’t happen.”

This 20-year-old woman, interviewed for a study on youth loneliness, captures the sense of pressure and isolation many young people say they feel.

The research, by Manchester Metropolitan University and the young person’s mental health charity 42nd Street, suggests youngsters often feel isolated and lonely when they fail to live up to expectations.

The youth-led research project – which specifically recruited young researchers aged 14 to 25 to interview 140 youngsters from a diverse range of backgrounds – found a range of issues increased levels of youth loneliness, particularly:

  • the fear of failure and disappointing others
  • pressures from social media
  • major life changes, such as family break-up or moving away from home
  • poverty
  • and feeling different, particularly for LGBT youth.

The report – Lonliness Connects Us – says that “loneliness itself is often a source of shame and stigma in a world which seems to require the performance of happiness and success”.

‘I still feel very lonely’

The 20-year-old woman interviewed said: “Old connections are broken. Who do you turn to? Not your family because you don’t want to add to their sense of disappointment.

“Online, happiness is compulsory. Looking happy online with a drink in your hand. You can’t say, ‘This is really hard, and I’m missing you.’

“And sometimes, even when I’ve now done everything I was meant to do, and I’ve succeeded in school and pleased my family and gone to uni, and I still feel very unhappy and lonely… what now?”

A recurring theme in the research was the loneliness that stems from a fear of disappointing those who have invested their hopes in a young person, if the path of education or career “success” is not sustained.

A 21-year-old man said: “If you asked me what represents my feeling of loneliness most, it’s when I’ve been in all weekend on my own and there’s leftover pizza in the fridge at the end of the weekend, because I’ve ordered a pizza but I can’t eat it all.

“I came here to go to university, but it didn’t work out. I’ve left home and don’t want to go back to the country town I come from, but I’m new here. Anyway, I’ve lost contact with my school friends.

“I don’t have a steady job. I get bits and pieces as a freelancer. But at the moment I’m working at a call centre, where I have to put up with a lot of rudeness.

“It’s all turned out so much harder than I expected, and I’m not making much money. I feel a failure at times, and I don’t want my parents to know.”

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And a 23-year-old man told researchers: “I used to think that when I’m 30 I’ll have the Mondeo, the house and all that stuff. But I’m getting older and I still don’t know if I’ll get that.

“I don’t know what I’m doing yet. I don’t have a career. I’m trying to find my path… I get anxiety about not spending my time wisely, not getting ahead. Why am I not building, being productive? Why I’m not getting on?”

  • Loneliness: The cost of the ‘last taboo’
  • Is loneliness affecting your health?

The study found that social media “presented a continued pressure to communicate oneself in a particular way, as leading an interesting and enviable life”.

A 21-year-old woman told researchers: “Social media is social pressure… people posting fake happiness. That has to be one of the loneliest places, with so much inner unhappiness and faking it online.

“So all your connections are based on falseness.”

The report says: “Young people’s exposure in schools to messages of empowerment, hard work, aspiration and resilience and the need to stand on their own two feet and look to themselves alone needs questioning.

“It has been clear throughout this period of research how powerful media discourses circulate that frame success and failure in achieving one’s aspirations of wealth and happiness in terms of individual’s effort rather than reflecting more complex classed and gendered explanations.”

Dr James Duggan, research fellow at MMU’s school of childhood, youth and education studies, said discussions about loneliness in the past had tended to focus on older people.

“But there’s an emerging debate on youth loneliness and we wanted to make sense of it and put young people’s voices at the centre of those discussions.

“Young people should take practical and political action, and we’re encouraging them to put loneliness on the agenda of youth politics.”

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