Loneliness among young people: Can volunteering help?

It’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that loneliness, a problem usually associated with older people, is now prevalent among young people too. While proof of the problem and its effects is growing, possible solutions have so far been thin on the ground. Could volunteering be part of the answer?

Young people most affected by loneliness

The Community Life Survey 2016 to 2017, which looks at trends in areas like volunteering, local action and wellbeing, asked respondents how often they felt lonely (ONS, 2018). Those aged 16-24 were the most likely to report feeling lonely, while those aged 25-34 came next.

Research from the British Red Cross and the Co-Op also found that those aged 16-24 were more likely to express feelings of loneliness than other age groups (Kantar Public, 2016). Interestingly, this stood in contrast to the general public’s perception of loneliness, with a third believing that older people are the group most likely to be lonely.

Loneliness leads to other problems

New research on loneliness among young adults in Britain delves deeper into its effects (Matthews et al, 2018).

Lonelier young adults are more likely to ‘experience mental health problems, to engage in physical health risk behaviours, and to use more negative strategies to cope with stress’, such as ‘withdrawing and obsessing about problems’. They also have lower overall life satisfaction and reported more compulsive use of digital technology, such as social media.

Young people value meaningful relationships

Research shows that people who are lonely can be motivated to engage with people if offered activities which instil a sense of purpose and benefit others, such as volunteering (Kantar Public, 2016).

While significant numbers of young people already volunteer, with 20% of 16-25-year olds doing so formally once a month (NCVO, 2018), #iwill research tells us that being able to volunteer with friends is the factor most likely to encourage them to get involved (Ipsos Mori, 2017). Young people disconnected from their peers may lack this important route into volunteering. Voluntary organisations wanting to support these young people may have to work even harder to reach them.

A study of a youth volunteering service in Kent demonstrates that it can take weeks or months for voluntary organisations to form connections with ‘hard to reach’ young people (Body and Hogg, 2016). Young people involved said it was informal engagement strategies, such as offering hot drinks and activities, as well as relationships with key individuals within the service that were effective in engaging them. They also pointed to the importance of being given a voice and influence in decision making processes which affect them.

Opportunities at schools and universities

As a quarter of young people who say they could become involved in volunteering identified being able to do so at school/college/university/work as a motivational factor, collaboration with these institutions might be another of the ways forward (Ipsos Mori, 2016).

The Royal College of General Practitioner’s (RCGP) recent Loneliness Manifesto also calls for joined up thinking, saying that local authorities, the voluntary sector, and GPs need to work together to ensure all are aware of the support available (RCGP, 2018).

Young people, volunteering and loneliness – building the evidence base

In line with public perceptions of loneliness, most research on its relationship with volunteering is focused on older people. Research shows that volunteering for two or more hours a week can help reduce feelings of loneliness among widows (Carr et al, 2017). The evidence also indicates that older people who volunteer are less socially isolated than those who do not (Royal Voluntary Service, 2012).

The effect of volunteering on young people’s connections with other people hasn’t yet received the same degree of attention, perhaps because of the emphasis on gaining skills and experience which sometimes defines youth volunteering.

We need to know more about how volunteering programmes can best reach young people’s needs around loneliness. Does volunteering enable young people to expand their social networks? Or are volunteering programmes for young people not currently reaching those most disconnected from their peers and communities? Greater emphasis on these questions in volunteering programmes and evaluations may provide the evidence and impact we need to tackle loneliness among young people.

Volunteers’ Week 2018

‘Volunteering for All’ is the theme of Volunteers’ Week 2018, taking place from 1-7 June. We are looking for short quotes, photos and one-minute smartphone videos that shine a spotlight on young volunteers to share on our social media channels this Volunteers’ Week. Please send these to jarina.choudhury@ncvo.org.uk via We Transfer.

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John was a research assistant at NCVO until January 2019. Previously John worked in the research team of an education consultancy called The Key, mainly focused on multi-academy trusts and school governance in his research.

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