“Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate,” said Jo Cox, the murdered MP who set up the Loneliness Commission to increase the public’s awareness and to address the need for change.
In 2018 Theresa May appointed a new minister of loneliness, Tracey Crouch, following the success of the Commission, which brought together 13 organisations to highlight the scale of the issue which affects older and younger people, employers and their employees, children and new parents, people with disabilities, refugees and carers.
The report found that more than nine million adults feel usually lonely. That’s almost 14% of the UK population, but the figures could be higher. Labour MP Rachel Reeves, the co-chair of the Commission, said that “loneliness is no longer just a personal misfortune but has grown into a social epidemic.”
It is a mental issue that can grow into a physically harmful problem. It can have lasting effects on a person. Weak social connection can become as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness puts stress on individuals and also on society “[and] has escalated into a social epidemic,” says Reeves. It costs UK employers £2.5 billion per year and disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year.Sophia Luu founded On the Mend last year to use “design for good” to promote positive social change. The collective of design students from all backgrounds are committed to healthcare and improving healthcare environments.
Their first project together was the ‘Ministry of Loneliness’ in collaboration with the Tate Exchange – a designated space on the fifth floor of the Blavatnik Building at the Tate Modern for “all to play, create, reflect and question what art can mean to our every day.”
The project highlighted the fact that young and old people are both vulnerable to the side-effects of loneliness. A third of old people feel isolated, and the second largest group that is affected are 21 to 35-year-olds.
With this project, Sophia wanted to illustrate that small things can make a difference too. Taking a little time to go out of your way to help someone else can really help someone that is struggling. The idea brought people together to engage in public conversation and combat the issue in a simple way. 81% of people agreed that there are lots of actions everyone can take in their daily lives to help those feeling lonely.One of the artists from the On the Mend collective, Laura Madeley, came up with the idea to incorporate the concept of a ministry, inspired by the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. Laura is completing an MA in Art and Science at Central Saint Martins and has had experience of delivering healthcare and service improvement and completing research within the NHS.
The concept of combining art and healthcare is slightly unusual, especially with institutional setbacks such as cuts, and funding is focused on medicine rather than art. Sophia found that it can be hard to get funding for art in institutional spaces, but the collective believes in the importance of art to make people feel better.
The event was based around writing letters to people in long-term healthcare, the elderly in care homes and those likely to be feeling lonely, such as people living cystic-fibrosis (CF). Cystic fibrosis is an isolating disease – people with it are more vulnerable to complications as they are more likely to pick infections and cross-infection from other people with CF, which is why they cannot meet face-to-face.Molly Bonnell is a member of the collective and is also currently completing her Master’s at Central Saint Martins. Molly is a trans-disciplinary designer and systems thinker with an emphasis on creating a more inclusive society through in-depth research and human-centred design.
She also has cystic fibrosis and has allowed her illness to influence her art. She can’t communicate with others in person without risking exposure, so she uses online platforms and groups to engage with the CF community to help combat the isolation it causes.
Sophia found the idea of using social media to promote the pop-up to combat an issue that is partly caused by social media rather ironic but was balanced by the anti-social media concept of physically writing letters.
Each letter had a number and a prompt such as “what is your favourite time of day”, the writer could use the number later to track where it ended up.Mathilda Della Torre is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer, currently based in London and doing a Master’s in Graphic Communication Design at Central Saint Martins. She is the co-director of the project helped design the logo of the letter. The logo fits together to make a larger image of hands connecting.
She uses her art as a way to look closer for longer, to portray how she sees small portions of the world and to bring people together through creative exchanges and visual conversations.More than 700 hundred people attended the event, and 300 letters were written. On the Mend hopes to collaborate with schools and bring the Ministry of Loneliness pop-up around the country to spread awareness and demonstrate that it only takes a small gesture to makes someone feel special.
The design team have been surprised and encouraged by the response they have had so far. Luu has found the number of conversations, the number of people coming forward to share their experiences and the “generosity of the people who have shared their time” very heart-warming; it’s wonderful to know that they are making progress and laying the foundation for change in society.Luu believes “it’s the little things that boost morale” like hand-writing letters. A lot of people think this issue can’t be helped, but talking about it makes a huge difference. Small things like taking the time visit your grandparents or smiling at a stranger.
Organisations such as the Mix and the Uni Bubble are also trying to start conversations online, connecting younger people who feel isolated. The Mix is an online platform that aims to provide essential support on issues such as mental health and relationships for under 25s. Their mission statement is that “all young people should be able to make informed choices about their physical and mental wellbeing so that they can live better lives.”
The Uni Bubble has a Facebook group for university students called Tackling Youth Loneliness. Taylan Gul founded the initiative in 2016 in his second year at Loughborough University at with the “aim of creating a global community for students to share experiences”. It began as a blog to begin with to offer advice to students and has grown from there.
“The Uni Bubble is passionate about creating a better world for students, and youth loneliness is the first of many issues we’re going to tackle through our platform. We realised through our article on loneliness at the university that this is an issue many students and young people are experiencing, so this group is our little way of tackling the issue. Through this group, everyone involved has a safe space to speak on their experience and to support one another.”
[pullquote align=”right”]“It’s the little things that boost morale” Sophia Luu[/pullquote]
The Tackling Youth Loneliness group has almost 3,000 members that share their experiences and provide support for each other from all over the world. It offers a space for young people to connect and discuss as well events such as panel discussions held at universities. The Uni Bubble hopes to eventually take the “community a lot further in the future and put on more offline events.”
The statistics on loneliness are worrying. More than one-in-three people aged 75 and over say that feelings of loneliness are out of their control. For 3.6 million people aged 65 and over television is the main form of company. More than one-in-ten men say they are lonely but would not admit it to anyone. As Jo Cox put it, loneliness doesn’t exclude anyone, it is a “giant evil” of our time.Loneliness is not just a UK epidemic, it is affecting hundreds of thousands of, mainly male, Japanese adolescents, some reports predict figures of a million. Tamaki Saitō is a psychiatrist who specialises in puberty and adolescence and began researching the “hikikomori” phenomenon in the early 1990s when he was overwhelmed by parents asking for help with their unresponsive teenagers.
The Hikikomori are generally males varying from 15-30-year-olds, who have retreated and are traumatised by social withdrawal caused by school or pressures to find work. The effects of being isolated from society are difficult to predict, but often the longer they have been “hiding in their bedrooms”, the harder it is to leave; the symptoms can vary from infantile behaviour to violent outbursts.
Perhaps our modern lives are to blame. We spend more of our time alone, working at home more, engaging less with local communities, and more often with our phones. People are always online and connected, but disconnected.
“When the culture and the communities that once connected us to one another disappear, we can be left feeling abandoned and cut off from society,” Reeves said after a year-long study into the issue.
The most cited agitator of the problem is also the solution for many adolescents. Teenagers and young adults feel isolated by social media but turn to it to maintain friendships and in some cases, make new friends.
According to a study on Loneliness and online friendships in emerging adults from Griffith University, the Internet seems to attract individuals who are lonely because it offers them broader social networks than are available offline. These “altered patterns of communication” may help overcome poor social skills. People have the ability to be anonymous, control their physical appearance, and easily find people with similarities, such as mutual interests, to them.
[pullquote align=”right”]“Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate”[/pullquote]In the last year, more than four in five young people have experienced people being kind to them online and 68% said that chatting to their friends online cheers them up.
“With this growing prominence, we see that technology is beginning to shift the expectations that young people have around what makes a good friend.” according to Will Gardner, the CEO of Childnet and Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre. He conducted a survey on young people aged 8-17 found that technology is embedded throughout their relationships.
This seems to continue into emerging adults as they transition from secondary schools into university and become the most dominant group on social networking site users (SNS). 89% of 19-29 year-olds are creating and maintaining a personal and largely public profile.
While there have been mixed findings – some conclusions from other studies suggest that higher internet use was associated with increased loneliness. Due to the fact that time spent online displaced more gratifying face-to-face interactions others found that the internet can stimulate social interaction.
Interestingly the results of the study seemed to suggest that romantically lonely emerging adults, who are motivated to meet new people, spend more time communicating with others online, and, through that, have more friends on their SNSs and make more new friends online.
[pullquote align=”right”]“Over nine million adults often or always feel lonely.”[/pullquote]There is a growing movement of young adults turning to apps to make friends, especially in large cities such as London. Females tended to have more total of SNS friends. Artefact spoke to several young women who are part of this growing trend of using Tinder to make friends online.
Grace, 19, a student at Leeds University has noticed this trend too but isn’t interested in making friends. She would still rather meet people in more natural ways outside of the app. She also finds that males seem to be more hostile towards the idea whereas girls are “generally more open to making friends.”
Lucía and Szaga are new to the city and decided to use Tinder to find people with similar interests to hang out with. Lucía has had some success while Szaga feels that “Tinder was a big hit, but now the trend has passed” and she just wants to meet people in real life, as she finds that “people portray each other differently” online. But on the other hand, Emilola, 19, a student at SOAS has made ten friends through Tinder as there is “no obstruction like anxiety or having to go out.”
Clara and Lily* decided to meet after matching on the site and chatting for several weeks before deciding to meet up at a night club. Clara hadn’t been using the app intentionally to make friends but came in “open-minded” and has made another friend this way.
But is there a difference between making friends online and offline? For this age group, social media seems to blend seamlessly into friendships regardless of their origin and perhaps it is another way to combat the loneliness of a large city.
* Some names have been changed at the request of the contributor.
Featured image by Lorenza Demata