The BBC’s Loneliness Experiment

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When it comes to loneliness, you may not be alone.

On October 1, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) unveiled data compiled during its 2018 Loneliness Experiment, an online survey designed by a trio of academics that was filled out by over 55,000 individuals beginning on February 14. An article posted on the on Monday summarizes the data; it also features interviews with three participants of the project who come from different walks of life.

Perhaps the most noteworthy insight revealed by what the article deems “the largest study of loneliness yet” is this: “There is a common stereotype that loneliness mainly strikes older, isolated people – and of course it can, and does. But the BBC survey found even higher levels of loneliness among younger people, and this pattern was the same in every country” (emphasis is my own). By “every country,” the authors are referencing the fact that individuals from “237 different countries, islands, and territories took part in the survey.”

The following table provides data from seven different groups based on age. The group featuring the greatest percentage of respondents who indicated that they experienced frequent loneliness included those between ages 16 and 24.

BBC loneliness table

The article’s authors proceed to explain that this increased prevalence of loneliness among younger people is not necessarily a generational difference (i.e. that today’s teens and twenty-somethings feel lonelier than young adults growing up decades ago). The staffers cite the fact that older people who completed the survey indicated that the loneliest periods of their lives occurred when they were younger.

Why? The author’s suggest that, “The years between 16 and 24 are often a time of transition where people move home, build their identities and try to find new friends.” Whether you navigated high school and college in the 1960s or early 2000s, these circumstances generally hold true. Young people immerse themselves in new employment and educational experiences, test new living situations, and venture forth into new relationships with friends, lovers, and employers.

Although these growth initiatives can result in powerful interpersonal bonds and the security of new-found belonging, they can also yield dramatic gulfs of soul-searching, isolation from the familiar, and a demoralizing uncertainty about what comes next. Anecdotally, being young has never been easy. The data from the BBC’s 2018 Loneliness Experiment seems to suggest that this has been true for many generations. Loneliness is a common condition experienced by people of all ages — but those who are younger self-report it at slightly greater rates. Regardless of age, it may be accurate to acknowledge that we are not alone in our loneliness.

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