The Co-op Foundation reports that 16-24 year olds feel lonely more often than any other age group, with nearly two thirds (65%) of young people seeing it as a problem for their peer group. Loneliness can lead to depression, anxiety and stress.  It is an important enough issue for the Government and the Co-op Foundation to announce £2 million of funding for a youth strand of a wider Building Connections fund set up in response to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.

Of course some teenagers have always felt lonely. Febrile relationships between young people have meant some feel left out, bullied or like they don’t fit in and those who seem to be the most popular can feel isolated too. Pressure to achieve good exam results, poverty or just being different (for example, being LGBT+) have meant that some young people simply withdraw from the world. But something new is happening in young people’s lives that means loneliness can reach a whole new level, and the darker side of the internet is playing a key role in exacerbating these difficulties. 

Social media

The breadth of content on YouTube, Instagram and other social media sites is so huge that it is possible to find a whole other life there.  If you are into model building, there are vast numbers of videos that show you the best models in the world; if you want to watch famous Youtubers pranking others or trying crazy stuff, you can spend all day with them, laughing and being a part of their world.

The nature of modern media is that you feel like you are there. Filmed on a phone or tiny camera you become part of the group, sitting opposite, running with them, watching as they play the latest computer game.

For those young people who struggle with their peer groups this is, initially, an appealing world of fun, fascination and belonging.  An easy world where there are few consequences and where you can feel part of the gang. Because it’s beguiling, it draws you away from the world you live in and makes it all the more frightening and uncomfortable. 

Now, of course, most young people see that for what it is, pull themselves out, enjoy what the internet, gaming and social media have to offer and then talk with friends back at school or in the youth club. But those who are vulnerable can get drawn into this world and travel down the vicious cycle of feeling isolated, spending more time online, falling behind in their social skills and feeling further isolated. Add to this the successful lives we all appear to have on social media – others posting about holidays, friendships, getting a first job, all add to a sense of isolation or failure.

These young people often fall below the radar of services that look for anti-social behaviour, abuse, being out of work or even mental health. They are often at home causing ‘no trouble’ and therefore get no help. At Creative Youth Network we see young people who have not left their home for months, have no physical social life and are falling into a spiral of depression and joblessness. Because there are no immediate dangers, support services pass them by until crisis point when a return to normality is often very difficult.  

Technology is turning society on its head. We haven’t yet learned to live with it and we are only really beginning to understand its power, both good and bad. 

Safe spaces to develop relationships based on trust

I don’t have the answer to all of these changes, but I do know that our youth clubs and other spaces and the work of our teams and partners play a crucial role in enabling young people to develop and maintain social contact with their peers, and build relationships with trusted people. 

We actively reach out to those under the radar teenagers to provide a safe space to develop their social skills and friendships. In combination with our courses and mentoring programmes, we are enabling young people to create solid relationships based on trust that will be there when life gets tough or opportunities present themselves. 

This is something that YouTube and Instagram will never be able to replace, and as a society we need to invest far more in ensuring young people can access the spaces and support they need to develop the relationships that are essential to them reaching their potential.