{Proposal} Loneliness in young adults

Motivation and Importance of the Research Outcomes

“I’m seen as this figure, in this role, but not as me … it’s really isolating being treated as a nothing, like you as a person don’t exist” – Retail worker, 23 years

A lot of loneliness research is directed toward the elderly, but in recent years young adults (18-25 years) indicate higher levels of loneliness than older people. Loneliness is a feeling of distress caused by relationship deficiencies, and can be devastating for our mental and physical health, even more so than obesity. Loneliness is also a potent risk factor for suicide; a link that is all-too-true for the young. Loneliness is not simply about feeling socially isolated or lacking connection, it also feels as if we are not seen, heard or understood, and feel disconnected and marginalised from groups and institutions.

This study seeks to understand loneliness among emerging adults by exploring the interaction between life stage and organisations.

Technology and social media are often touted as both the blame and remedy for loneliness. However, there is growing recognition that loneliness is more complex and intersect with wellbeing in lots of different ways. Available evidence suggests that different age groups experience loneliness differently in various contexts, suggesting that it is important to study life stage and context when understanding loneliness.

Young adults are often at greater risk for experiencing loneliness because rapid social changes are occurring, existing support networks are lost, and new stressors are introduced, such as starting work. Such transitions are not new areas to explore, however what is novel is the contemporary labour market in which young adults now enter. The end of the ‘9-to-5’ workday, the rise of precarious work in the ‘gig’ economy and the creeping neoliberal shift from ‘we to me’ often mean a lot of time spent alone with less fulfilling interactions. Researching the psychosocial consequences of this evolution of work is important, making targeted evidence-driven interventions more effective.

Because of the stigma and feelings of personal failure associated with loneliness, not all young adults will seek help. To have an impact on loneliness in young adults we need to recognise the critical part perceptions play in developing effective interventions. This is particularly important in a social context such as the workplace where interactions are coupled with power and status differentials, which are not often in the young adult’s control or influence.

Research Methodology

The main aim of the proposed research is to answer “why” to the question of young adult loneliness and to use those answers to create and support community interventions.

Study 1: Quantitative

I propose conducting an online longitudinal study on the prevalence and patterns of loneliness in young adults (N~1500 x 2 time points, 18-24 years old, 15 mins duration). A secure, anonymous online survey will allow Prolific respondents to maintain privacy of disclosure about their work experiences. The proposed study will analyse patterns of antecedents (e.g. organisational factors such as job characteristics; interpersonal factors such as trust; and individual factors such as shyness). I propose using cross-lagged panel analyses to test for reciprocal predictive relationships between loneliness and its antecedents.

Study 2: Qualitative

Existing research on loneliness often associates the experience with a mental illness (e.g., depression or social anxiety) and/or an individual deficit, and rarely studies the experience from the perspective of those whom are often in the company of others, e.g. in a workplace. Therefore, the qualitative study explores the meaning of loneliness as a lived experience. Prolific participants, aged 18-24 who currently feel lonely will schedule an online anonymous interview in a secure chatroom in which we will explore the meaning of their loneliness and understand the role organisations play in their experiences (systems, processes, and people). I will use inductive methods to analyse the data for themes (N ~ to saturation, ~50).

Ethical approval will be sought from the University of Canterbury Human Ethics Committee.

Study Preregistration: AsPredicted #66349, titled ‘Loneliness in Young Adults’. I pledge the analyses, anonymised data, and materials being made publicly available following the completion of the study.

Study Costs

Study 1: 3000 participants @£7.50 per hour = £7,520

Study 2: 50 participants @£10.00 per hour = £670

Total cost: £8,190

Study Outreach

The outcomes of this research will help inform the development of interventions, policy, health and social care in recognising the vulnerability of young adults in contemporary work contexts.

A fundamental aspect of outreach is to generate discussion of the topic to help reduce the stigma and taboo nature of the experience so that more people feel comfortable raising the issues.

I propose to share the learning widely via academic and popular articles e.g. The Conversation , Psychology Today ), loneliness charitable organisations ( Campaign to End Loneliness , Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network ), webinars and/or podcasts (e.g. WorkLifePsych , Togetherness Hub) , and partnership with community and research organisations, and social media. Working with mainstream media also expands general awareness of the study and can help amplify messages through more targeted communications.

Developing helpful materials for organisations and individuals that focus on the applied aspect of the research findings will also help outreach of the research, e.g. interventions, strategies to reduce loneliness (and increase connectedness), case studies of those who have overcome loneliness, and other relatable and informative material.


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