Elle Thwaites is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Leeds, and is currently on placement with the Campaign to End Loneliness.
Loneliness in under-30s: the current outlook
It’s no secret that in recent years, many aspects of life have been relocated to online spaces. We video call friends and family, meet our colleagues on Zoom, take classes online, and use an app to request a doctor’s appointment or prescription.
This increasing digitalisation has been scrutinised for posing a risk to social connection and interaction. But an emerging trend of online communities for young adults suggests that social media could also provide an antidote to isolation. Current research shows that over 10% of under-30s in Great Britain feel lonely often or always.
The most recent edition of the ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (released 19 May 2023) shows that 37% of adults aged 16-29 feel lonely ‘often/always or some of the time’ – 26% feel lonely ‘some of the time’, while 11% feel lonely ‘often or always’. These figures reflect the most recent statistics from the survey – which is regularly updated – taken from early May 2023.
This figure is higher than average: 26% of all adults feel lonely ‘often/always or some of the time’ compared to the younger demographic’s 37%. This figure stood at 27% for the 30-49 year old age bracket, 22% for 50-69 year olds, and 19% for adults aged 70 and over.
For many young people in Britain, feelings of loneliness are perceived to be an inevitable part of the transition to adult life. Post-graduation blues often affect recent university graduates; some experience post-university depression. Growing opportunities to work remotely since the covid pandemic offer increased flexibility, but the decreased social interaction can pose a challenge.
Members of this age group – 16 to 29 year olds – are considered ‘digital natives’. They are familiar with social media and comfortable conducting much of their lives online. Whether this can help or hinder wellbeing is a debated topic. It has been noted that social media can sometimes exacerbate loneliness, for example. But could it also be part of the solution?
New communities for young adults
In recent years, digital communities that specifically foster offline connection have been emerging online.
These are slightly different to online communities such as Reddit discussion forums or Facebook groups organised around a shared topic or point of interest (think sports, gaming, local area news, activism, an employment sector, or health condition).
For young women, groups like Bamby Collective and Gals Who Graduate are becoming a useful source of social connection. These were both set up by online influencers, who harnessed their own platforms to bring together their large number of followers. Other groups focus on connecting people with shared interests so they can invest in them together, such as The Travel Squad.
Groups targeted at young professionals are also cropping up in cities and local areas, such as the After Work Club, Manchester Young Professionals, and YFP Swindon. Groups such as these also offer opportunities for networking – but they are keen to build a community too.
A quick search on Facebook or Instagram for communities in large cities will yield a plethora of results – and access to like-minded peers nearby. As the issue of loneliness amongst young adults is becoming increasingly acknowledged and gradually de-stigmatised, groups like these are cropping up around the UK.
Online communities for in-person connections
What makes these digital communities distinct is the objective of bringing people together by facilitating in-person interaction.
The benefits for members who choose to get involved are multiple. As well as getting to know new people – and reducing social isolation – they can explore their local area, visit popular food and drinks venues, and try out new activities. It allows them to create shared experiences, which can be foundational to building social connection.
In my own involvement with Bamby Collective Leeds (one of many regional groups within Bamby Collective), I have seen the ways that digital communities can bring people together. We’ve done pottery painting, chatted over brunch, and had a picnic at a local park. Other groups have attended gym classes, axe throwing, and puppy yoga. In doing so, new friendships have formed.
This trend may be a response to particular issues faced by certain demographics of young people. Consider, for example, highly mobile young professionals, whose regular relocation may compound social isolation. These groups appear to be aimed at more affluent emerging adults; perhaps those who are highly career-oriented, or who have the financial resources to fund new activities and experiences.
We know that feelings of loneliness are higher amongst young people, and that social media can contribute to this. Could groups like these offer a potential solution?