An interview with postdoctoral researcher, Gerine Lodder (31), at the University of Groningen. Dr. Lodder researches loneliness amongst young people, in order to raise greater awareness of this problem in society.
Why did you decide to research loneliness amongst young people?
“The amount of lonely young people in society is severely underestimated. Children and adolescents seem to always be surrounded by others at school and in sports clubs but, together with the elderly, they are actually the most lonely group in society. A research study from the Haaglanden region in The Netherlands, shows that 50 percent of youths feel lonely sometimes, or often. Additionally, international figures show that 3 percent to 11 percent of all youths are chronically lonely, yet most of the research regarding loneliness focuses on the elderly.”
What is loneliness according to you?
“People need to be in contact with others, otherwise they cannot survive. Loneliness is, like hunger, a signal from the body that something is missing. In this case, it’s human contact. Loneliness can appear in many different forms, but is always the feeling of missing something. By missing something, I mean the quality and/or quantity of contact with others.”
Everyone feels lonely once in awhile, when does it become a problem?
“It is very normal to feel lonely sometimes, for example when you start a new job or a new class in high school. When people feel lonely for a longer period of time and are unable to find a solution for their loneliness, it becomes a problem. They will then need help from others to combat their loneliness.”
What effect does loneliness have on youngsters?
“Lonely youngsters perform worse at school, become depressed, and can even experience suicidal thoughts. Moreover, it appears that lonely youngsters have more difficulty reaching out to others in comparison to their peers. As a result, they get stuck in a negative spiral that becomes increasingly difficult to get out of.”
How can you measure loneliness?
“Loneliness can be measured by surveys where people indicate whether there is a difference between their desired contact with others and their actual contact. An example question in a survey could be: Do you sometimes feel like you have nobody to talk to, but would like to?”
Can you name some general causes of loneliness?
“There are many different causes of loneliness. The most prevalent causes of loneliness amongst youngsters can be categorised into three groups. The first group consists of youngsters who have no access to social contacts and therefore feel lonely. For example, children who spend a lot of time at home, or those who are being bullied at school.
The second group feels lonely because they lack social skills. They have difficulties making new friends, but even if they do have friends, they can have a harder time communicating that they need more attention. Other youngsters often recognise that there is something different and will subsequently exclude them.
The last group consists of youngsters who already see the world around them through dark glasses, as a result of depression, for example. They isolate themselves from their surroundings and have fewer contacts.
These three groups are general categories and do not exclude each other. For example, a person can have fewer social skills and also low self-esteem.”
Is youth loneliness recognised sufficiently in society, and is enough being done to combat it?
“Most initiatives that exist now focus on the group that feels lonely due to lack of social contacts. What is often not realised is that these may not be solutions for those with limited social skills or a negative self-image.”
What should be different, according to you?
“There needs to be a greater societal realisation that loneliness is an ongoing and prevalent problem amongst young people. Loneliness is often still a taboo subject because people tend to be embarrassed to admit they’re lonely. More research should also be conducted on the causes of loneliness. The groups that are often overlooked due to the one-size-fits-all approach should be looked at in a better and more personalised manner.”
Why do we need a more personalised approach?
“Medical doctors don’t use just one machine to cure all their patients, right? Psychological care is exactly the same: it is not possible to use just one approach as a cure or prevention method. We need tailored products to combat loneliness. Customised approaches can cost time and money, but loneliness is a big problem that should be dealt with immediately and more effectively. The least we can do as psychologists is to find out why a young person is lonely, and make sure he or she gets the appropriate care.”
Could innovative methods help here?
“Apps and games designed to combat depression already exist, so perhaps something similar could work to tackle loneliness. The most important thing to keep in mind is that all future methods should be focused on the individual. We cannot just offer the same method to all lonely youngsters, which is often the case now.”
How do you deal with loneliness in your private life?
“It is funny you ask this because although I spend much time researching loneliness, I still find it difficult to ask people if they’re lonely. That really shows how much of a taboo the subject still is.”
Written by: Ties Gijzel