During the autumn of 2020, it was finally time to write my masters thesis. I had already given some thought to what I considered to be my area of interest and what I wanted to study. Since loneliness has fascinated me for a long time, I quickly became interested in the project “Loneliness among youth and young people” led by Jessica Hemberg at Åbo Akademi University at the department of Caring Sciences. Link to the project: https://research.abo.fi/en/projects/loneliness-and-adolescents

During the writing of my own master’s thesis, we were also in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was aware of the increased requirement of research concerning loneliness, especially since loneliness and mental health problems among young people had increased due to the pandemic (Lisitsa, Benjamin, Chun, Skalisky, Hammond & Mezulis, 2020; Lee, Cadigan & Rhew, 2020), which is why I decided to write my own master’s thesis as part of the project.

The aim of my study was to examine loneliness from adolescents and young adults’ perspectives. The focus was however, not on the COVID-19 pandemic, but on experiences of loneliness in general. The data was collected through semi-structured interviews with eleven (n=11) adolescents between ages of 17-28 and analyzed with content analysis. The study was written as an article together with my supervisor Jessica Hemberg, and later published in the “International Journal of Adolescence and Youth”. Link to the article: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2021.1908903

Loneliness has previously gained scientific attention due to its arising problem in society and is according to Perlman and Peplau (1988) defined as experienced deficiencies in social relationships (Perlman & Peplau, 1988). Although loneliness has previously been studied during the declining years, research indicates that loneliness is a common interrelated problem during adolescence (Qualter, Brown, Rotenberg, Vanhalst, Goossens, Bangee & Munn, 2013). According to a UK-based study, 9,1 % of 14-year-olds reported always feeling lonely (Yang, Petersen & Qualter, 2020), and loneliness has also been found to be frequently experienced among university students (Hysing, Peterie, Bøe, Lønning & Sivertsen, 2020). The prevalence of loneliness has also, in comparison between different Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland) showed to be highest among Finnish and Icelandic adolescents. Findings also portray that loneliness is associated with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, hence, constituting for a risk factor for adolescent’s positive mental health (Lyyra, Thorsteinsson, Eriksson, Madsen, Tolvanen, Löfstedt & Välimaa, 2021).

Study results

Risk factors for loneliness
The results in our study revealed that transitions (moving to a new study location, new working place, transferring out of military) were vulnerable periods during the respondent’s lifetime, since these periods affected the participants social network, but also involved a lot of changes, such as moving away from family and friends as well as having to adjust to very new conditions and situations. Respondents narrated that social isolation from the community or from friends also affected loneliness negatively, for instance individuals living in rural regions who did not have the means to affect the situation (not having a car or driver’s license) or participants situated in an unsafe family environment could potentially be at risk for loneliness if they are isolated from their friends. Participants also explained that not having anyone to contact increased feelings of loneliness, for example being physically lonely for a long time increased the fear of contacting friends or living at a long distance from friends and family, led to feelings of not having anyone to contact. Many participants in our study also explained that group differences (having different interests, age differences, language, appearance) could lead to not being able to connect with the group, establishing friends or the feeling of not belonging or identifying with the group. According to these young people, the feeling of not meeting social expectations (being social, being in a partnership) led to feelings of inferiority or deviance, leading to loneliness. Seeing other companionships through social media or in real life and comparing oneself to these people led to negative feelings about oneself, feeling excluded or blaming oneself for not being able to connect with other individuals. Loneliness was also found to be triggered or occurring simultaneously with ill-being (tiredness, stress, anxiety, negative emotions) which led to experiencing an even deeper loneliness. Earlier negative experiences (peer victimization, mental or physical abuse) also affected trust and bonding negatively and led to social avoidance, eventually leading to loneliness. Having a negative self-image or self-esteem also led participants to self-blame, believing that others did not want them around, thinking negative thoughts about oneself, which further led them to avoid social contact. Being ashamed of feeling lonely, further made it harder to contact people to gain support. Shame was anticipated by social expectations of having a lot of friends and acquaintances, which made it harder to admit that one feels lonely (Sundqvist & Hemberg, 2021).

Interventions for loneliness
According to the participants in our study, focusing on measurements which strengthen self-image, self-awareness, socio-emotional competence, and self-esteem are important when it comes to preventing loneliness, since it could offer the ability to detect feelings which give rise to loneliness and how to cope with these feelings. Several participants also said that receptivity, knowledge, inclusion, and safety were important factors. Creating a suitable environment for socialization, having knowledge on how to cope with difficult emotions and teaching children to socialize and include everyone was considered important. Safety in family environment and support from teachers were also found to be important measures in alleviating loneliness. Coping with loneliness through acceptance, adaptation and a positive mindset was helpful during times of loneliness. Participants mentioned that occupying themselves with activities were also helpful when they experienced loneliness. Participants also mentioned that one needs to adapt to spending time alone, since being alone for the first time (by e.g., moving to new study location) gave rise to feelings of emptiness and isolation. Participants also mentioned that supporting social contact through low threshold events and happenings were important. Meeting others with similar interests through events or hobbies was important in finding a sense of belonging, establishing new networks or purposes. Easily accessible therapy was also a necessity and should be considered for individuals who experience loneliness (Sundqvist & Hemberg, 2021).

The findings of our study revealed a deeper understanding on how loneliness among young people is experienced, what problems might affect loneliness and how loneliness potentially could be alleviated in the eyes of young people. The findings also support former quantitative and qualitative research.

Since the study was conducted, more interest in conducting research in this field emerged. In my own PhD studies, I have chosen to conduct research on how transitions (moving to a new town, entering military etc.) affect loneliness and mental health among young people, since transitions were found to be a critical time leading to loneliness, for many young people in this study.

Another study from the project on loneliness among adolescents was published in 2021 was regarding adolescents’ experiences of loneliness and its two-sided story. Link to the article online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2021.1883075

Other studies currently underway within the project is an integrated review on loneliness and adolescents and young people performed by doctoral student Yulia Korzhina and interview studies (based on new data collected 2021) on young peoples’ experiences of well-being and loneliness related to distance learning and study motivation, as well as their need for support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amanda Sundqvist
PhD student in health sciences, Department of caring sciences, Åbo Akademi University, Vaasa.

Link to profile: https://www.abo.fi/kontakt/amanda-sundqvist/

Jessica Hemberg (principal supervisor)
Associate professor in Caring Sciences, PhD, PHN, RN, Department of caring sciences, Åbo Akademi University, Vaasa.

Link to profile: https://research.abo.fi/en/persons/jessica-hemberg

Hysing, M., Petrie, K. J., Bøe, T., Lønning, K. J. & Sivertsen, B. (2020). Only the lonely: A study of loneliness among university students in Norway. Clinical psychology in Europe, 2(1), e2781. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.32872/cpe.v2i1.2781

Lee, C. M., Cadigan, J. M. & Rhew, I. C. (2020). Increases in Loneliness Among Young Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Association with Increases in Mental Health Problems. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(5), 714-717. Doi:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2020.08.009

Lisitsa, E., Benjamin, K. S., Chun, S. K., Skalisky, J., Hammond, L. E., & Mezulis, A. H. (2020). Loneliness among young adults during covid-19 pandemic: the mediational roles of social media use and social support seeking. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 39(8). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2020.39.8.708

Lyyra, N., Thorsteinsson, E.B., Eriksson, C., Madsen, K.R., Tolvanen, A., Löfstedt, P., Välimaa, R. (2021). The Association between Loneliness, Mental Well-Being, and Self-Esteem among Adolescents in Four Nordic Countries. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 18, 7405. https:// doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18147405

Perlman, D. & Peplau, L. A. (1998). Loneliness. Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2, 571–581.

Qualter, P., Brown, S. L., Rotenberg, K. J., Vanhalst, J., Goossens, L., Bangee, M., & Munn, P. (2013). Trajectories of loneliness during childhood and adolescence: predictors and health outcomes. Journal of adolescence, 36(6), 1283-1293. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.01.005

Sundqvist, A. J. & Hemberg, J. (2021). Adolescents’ and young adults’ experiences of loneliness and their thoughts about its alleviation. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 26(1), 238-255. Doi: https://doi-org.ezproxy.vasa.abo.fi/10.1080/02673843.2021.1908903

Yang, K., Petersen, K. J. & Qualter, P. (2020). Undesirable social relations as risk factors for loneliness among 14-year-olds in the UK: Findings from the millennium Cohort study. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 46(1), 1-7. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0165025420965737