How can education help fight loneliness?

Woman looking into camera stands alone on a busy shopping street

By Tracey Burns

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Loneliness has deep impacts – and the feeling is particularly common among adolescents and young adults
– Education has a key role to play in preventing and responding to loneliness
– Investing in intervention programmes, and ensuring that these can be evaluated, will help tackle the problem

Luca sits, surrounded by friends. After so many months of restrictions due to the pandemic, he is happy to find himself in his usual spot at the centre of a group. Yet as he watches his friends laugh together, he can’t help feeling disconnected. He doesn’t want to say it out loud, but he feels… lonely. Being with others almost makes it worse.

Loneliness will remain after COVID restrictions ease

As we slowly open things up, isolation will decrease – but loneliness might not. Loneliness is related but not the same as social isolation. While social isolation is an objective measure of connections to other people (the number of daily contacts you have, for example), loneliness is a subjective emotional state, characterised by a longing for human contact. This distinction is important: socially isolated youth do not necessarily feel lonely and conversely, even very popular students can be lonely.

Loneliness is most common at two life stages. First, in adolescence and early adulthood, when youths establish their identity. And second, during old age (80+), a time marked by decreased mobility and the loss of loved ones.

The good news is that not all loneliness is bad: on the contrary, occasional loneliness acts as a natural sign that we may need to reach out and pushes us to reconnect with others.

The bad news is that feeling lonely all or much of the time (also known as chronic loneliness) has deep impacts. It can impair learning, affect physical and mental health, and is even linked to early death. Loneliness is thus not only a personal matter; it is a public health concern.

Feeling lonely: What can education do to help?

Education has a key role to play in both preventing and responding to loneliness. Schools provide spaces and opportunities for friendship: 75% of 15 year old students agreed or strongly agreed that they can make friends easily at school in PISA 2018. However, over 15% agreed or strongly agreed that they “feel lonely at school”. This ranges from a high of almost a quarter of students in Lithuania, Turkey and the United States, to less than 8% in the Netherlands.

Is loneliness increasing? On average, yes. Between 2003-2018, reported loneliness increased in OECD countries from 8 to 15%, with the biggest increases in the Slovak Republic, Australia and Iceland. But the trend wasn’t uniform: Turkey’s students consistently reported high levels of loneliness over those 15 years. And Japan, one of the countries where loneliness is a serious public concern, had a large decrease in the same time period.

Encouraging children and adolescents to talk about loneliness helps to reduce stigma and raise awareness of warning signs and prevention strategies

Education can help forge connections across social groups, strengthen social skills and provide access to activities that are meaningful over a lifetime. Encouraging children and adolescents to talk about loneliness helps to reduce stigma and raise awareness of warning signs and prevention strategies. It can also help to challenge myths, for example, that you can’t be lonely in a crowd.

What can be done to prevent and reduce loneliness?

There are four main approaches to prevent and reduce loneliness:

  1. improving social and emotional skills (for example, teaching children how to initiate maintain and end interactions, understanding others, conflict resolution, and social problem-solving)
  2. enhancing social support (such as greater contact and care for children with recently divorced parents, death in the family or other trauma)
  3. increasing opportunities for social interaction (design of space, instructional strategies)
  4. tailoring psychological therapy (for example, addressing impaired executive function, emotional regulation, biases in attention and cognition).

Despite the variety of intervention programmes, there is little research on their effectiveness, especially for youth. The one existing meta-analysis showed modest success for all types of intervention approaches, while also calling for improvement in the targeting and evaluation of interventions. It also underlines that there is no “one size fits all” magic solution. The causes of loneliness are nuanced and individual and more work is needed to understand what is effective, when, and for whom.

Returning to Luca: as he already has plenty of friends, increasing support or opportunities for social interaction are not needed. In his case, cognitive intervention programmes could help. Learning how to identify and challenge negative thoughts can break a vicious cycle, in which someone who feels lonely is hyper-vigilant and primed to give a negative interpretation to social cues. This in turn elicits behaviours from their friends and peers that confirm the lonely person’s perceptions and feelings of disconnection – a vicious cycle that is self-reinforcing and leads to further social withdrawal.

Let’s keep talking and sharing – and thereby giving others permission to share their frustrations, sadness, feelings of isolation and loneliness. Let’s help teachers, who are not always very confident in their ability to identify and help lonely students, particularly those, like Luca, who seem always surrounded by others. And let’s not forget the evaluation piece: as we increasingly invest in intervention programmes during our recovery from the pandemic, let’s make sure that we also build in effective evaluations to ensure that they do, in fact, work.

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Photo: Shutterstock/creativemarc