Where your real friends at? 16- to 24-year-olds are the loneliest, study reveals

A recent survey – the largest one on loneliness to date – conducted by BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind, revealed that younger people are lonelier than older people.
A recent survey – the largest one on loneliness to date – conducted by BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind, revealed that younger people are lonelier than older people.

When you’re 16, 17 and 18 years old, you’re finishing off high school and looking forward to a new and exciting phase in your life as you'll possibly move on to university or another adventure.

It’s thrilling to make new friends, get out more, exercise your new freedom, and take your first steps towards building your career at around 21. Youth has always been considered the happiest, most exhilarating time of your life – before having to take on more responsibilities and eventually settle into an often lonely retirement. But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. In the BBC video above, one woman says her feelings of loneliness started in adolescence. 

A recent survey – the largest one on loneliness to date – conducted by BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind, revealed that younger people are actually lonelier than older people.

loneliness infographic

Stats: BBC Radio 4

Over 55 000 people aged 16 years and older took part in the survey on a self-selecting basis, meaning people who thought they may be experiencing loneliness voluntarily took part, inflating reported levels of loneliness. But the survey explored the volunteers' attitudes towards loneliness, as well as their personal experiences of it.

The results revealed that 40% of people aged 16-24 years old present with higher feelings of loneliness and feeling lonely often, compared with only 29% of people aged 65-74, and 27% of those aged 75 years and older.

Did you struggle to deal with feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression growing up? Tell us your story by emailing and we may publish your letter.  Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

The study also revealed that only a third of participants believed loneliness is about the experience of being on your own and 41% of people thought that loneliness can sometimes be a positive experience. Significantly, and at the route of our problem I believe, is that the study also revealed that those who felt lonely also had more “online only” Facebook ‘friends’.

Where your real friends at?

Despite enabling multiple online public spheres and facilitating relationships, social media has often been condemned – by mom, dad, grandma and grandpa – as a harmful and damaging technological advancement. And understandably so. At 16, teens often have their headphones in, zoned out, eyes fixed on screens.

Let's be honest, us parents are too often glued to our screens ourselves.

It has indeed made us antisocial, and to such an extent that we’ve become somewhat focused on our followers and online friends more than our real-life ones.

Whether you fall in the 30 to 50 age group or the 16 to 24 age group, think about it: When was the last time you spoke to your best friend? Last night? On Twitter, you mean? Facebook? Threads don’t count.

Artist Steve Cutts describes it perfectly in his satirisation of society and our complete consumption with the modern world in his music video for Moby & The Void Pacific Choir’s song Are You Lost in The World Like Me?

Research fellow Rebecca Nowland speaks of research she conducted on the correlation between loneliness and internet use to explain that the use of social media can lead to both increases and decreases in loneliness, depending on how you use it.

She explains that when we use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp to connect with people and maintain existing relationships, it decreases loneliness. But when we spend all our time online instead of getting out to the point where our online friends and interactions replaces real-life coffee dates and adventures, we can start to feel lonely.

That being said, being alone and wanting alone time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as indicated by the survey and people’s perceptions of loneliness. To quote Rupi Kaur on the importance of self-care: “Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself.”

Nowland concludes that it’s only when we avoid offline social interactions, and intentionally isolate ourselves, that we slowly become more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, facilitated then through social technologies. She explains you’ll see signs in people who are “more likely to focus on negative information online, view content rather than share, and generally use social media in ways that continue to make them feel lonely – or make those feelings even worse.”

Identifying signs of loneliness and depression

Wanting to be alone isn’t a bad thing, Nowland explains, until it affects your mental and physical wellbeing.

SADAG reports that in South Africa, 1 in 4 university students have been diagnosed with depression, over 20% of 18-year-olds have had one or more suicide attempt and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years old, though most cases go undetected and untreated.

It’s therefore important to be able to identify the following signs of loneliness, according to Health24, particularly when it could be bordering on depression:

  • Having a depressed or irritable mood
  • Loss of interest and pleasure in things you usually enjoy
  • Changes in appetite as well as weight loss
  • Slowing or speeding up of physical activity
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feeling sick often
  • Inability to concentrate and lack of productivity
  • Insomnia or the opposite – finding yourself tired and wanting to sleep all the time

Signs may not always be that easy to identify. Oftentimes feelings of depression, loneliness, and anxiety can be disguised by a seemingly excusable “I’m just tired” and “I have a headache”, as explained in this powerful video by Mental Health on The Mighty:

The video explains that as children – heck, even as adults – it can be difficult to communicate what we’re feeling. So parents should be more aware of the signs that their child’s mental health may be suffering, especially if they can’t tell on their own and come forward to ask for help. Make a special dad-daughter date, go out for ice cream, get past the pleasantries, and start really engaging, even if you have to open up about how you're feeling first.

And if you’ve got a friend you haven’t heard from seen in a while, ring them up and make a date – they could very well be in desperate need of you.

Did you struggle to deal with feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression growing up? Tell us your story by emailing and we may publish your letter.  Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

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