A new UK study, which surveyed people from all around the globe, has found that those who are young, male and living in an “individualistic” country could be more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness.
Carried out by Exeter, Manchester and Brunel universities, the new study is the first published research from the BBC Loneliness Experiment, which looked at 46,054 participants aged 16 to 99 living across 237 countries, islands and territories to investigate how culture, age and gender might influence loneliness.
After questioning the participants online about their social life and experiences of loneliness, the findings showed that contrary to the popular belief that seniors are lonelier than young people, there was actually a steady decrease in loneliness as people age.
Younger people reported more loneliness than the middle-aged, and the middle-aged reported more loneliness than older people.
“Contrary to what people may expect, loneliness is not a predicament unique to older people,” said Professor Manuela Barreto, of the University of Exeter. “In fact, younger people report greater feelings of loneliness.”
“Since loneliness stems from the sense that one’s social connections are not as good as desired, this might be due to the different expectations younger and older people hold.”
“The age pattern we discovered seems to hold across many countries and cultures.”
Men also reported more loneliness than women, with Professor Pamela Qualter, from the University of Manchester, explaining that: “With regard to gender, the existing evidence is mixed. There is an awareness that admitting to feeling ‘lonely’ can be especially stigmatising for men.”
“However, when this word is not used in the measures, men sometimes report more loneliness than women. This is indeed what we found.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those living in “individualistic” societies such as the USA or the UK, where there is an emphasis on the individual over the entire group, also reported higher levels of loneliness, compared to those living in a “collectivist” society, such as China or Brazil, which values the needs of a group or a community over the individual.
“It can be argued that admitting to feeling lonely is also more stigmatising in individualistic societies, where people are expected to be self-reliant and autonomous,” commented Barreto.
The researchers say that based on their findings, a young man living in an individualistic society could expect to experience a much higher level of loneliness than an older woman living in a collectivist society.
“Though it is true that younger people are better able to use technology to access social relationships, it is also known than when this is done as a replacement — rather than an extension — of those relationships, it does not mitigate loneliness,” said Barreto.