One in 10 children ‘often lonely’, according to ONS figuresIvy Madziva
Report finds 27.5% of children who received free school meals said they were often lonely.
Children aged 10 to 12 were more likely to report feeling lonely, which could be associated with moving up to secondary school. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian
One in 10 children aged 10 to 15 in Britain are often lonely, according to the first official figures on child loneliness, described by the Children’s Society as heartbreaking.
Children who received free school meals, lived in a city and reported low satisfaction with their health or with relationships with friends and families were more likely to often feel lonely, according to analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
It found that loneliness was more prevalent among younger children, aged 10 to 12 (14%), than older children, aged 13 to 15 (8.6%).
Richard Crellin, the policy manager at the Children’s Society, which was involved with the research, said: “We’ve been getting a much better understanding of loneliness over the last year, but it’s not been looked at before how it affects children.
“It’s really bleak, it’s quite heartbreaking to think of children being lonely. Loneliness is something we all feel at some time of our life, however, if a lot of children are feeling lonely a lot of the time, we can’t sit back and do nothing, it can be really damaging for them. When young people are feeling isolated it could be hurting their mental health or they can even be vulnerable to things like grooming.”
Many – but not all – of the triggers for loneliness identified in the research, which was both qualitative and quantitative, related to the school environment.
The ONS found that 27.5% of children who received free school meals said they were often lonely, compared with 5.5% of those who did not, a differential it suggested could be explained by a combination of deprivation and social stigma.
It said the higher prevalence of loneliness among 10- to 12-year-olds could be attributed to the move from primary school to secondary school.
One girl, aged 15, said: “At that time [when I moved school], I don’t [sic] really have friends so I just felt out of place. There was no one for me to talk to about it. No one really, I don’t think anyone understood. And then, yeah, I just felt lonely.”
Other issues identified as contributing to loneliness included punishment practices involving isolation and exclusion, approaches to supporting children with disabilities – for example having to have someone with them at all times – and bullying.
One boy, aged 12, said: “Cyberbullying is a big problem in my school at the moment … There’s been a boy who’s just had it all thrown at him. And he just is alone all the time.”
The Children’s Society is urging the government to ensure all secondary school pupils have access to a counsellor, but says wider changes are necessary.
“Youth services, parks, leisure centres, you need those to have a thriving school life, where children are not going to feel lonely, but increasingly things are being cut,” said Crellin. “It’s difficult to solve the problem for the most vulnerable children when children’s services are facing a £3bn cut by 2025.”
Children who were interviewed suggested their own ideas for tackling the problem, which included making it more acceptable to discuss loneliness. While social media is often criticised as having a detrimental effect on children’s mental health, respondents said it helps maintain connections and create new ones. However, potential negative consequences were also highlighted, including making someone feel more left out and promoting a shallower form of communication.
A government spokeswoman said: “From 2020 schools will be required to teach relationships education in the classroom.
“Our measures – set out in our Loneliness Strategy – will help young people to learn about healthy friendships and reduce the stigma of loneliness.”
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