People become steadily less lonely as they age and young men are the most vulnerable, global research from the UK suggests.
Researchers found a “steady decrease” in reported loneliness as people age, while it increased in individualistic societies and was greater in men than women.
Experts from Exeter, Manchester and Brunel universities analysed data on more than 46,000 people aged 16-99 across 237 countries and territories part of the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment.
Younger men living in individualistic societies, such as the UK, were found to be the most vulnerable to frequent and persistent loneliness.
Individualistic cultures value self-reliance and are associated with loose social networks, primarily dominated by chosen relationships; collectivist cultures encourage interdependence and have tighter social networks, dominated by family and others, the researchers said.
Research “does not support” the commonly-held belief that the elderly are more lonely than young people, the paper says.
Professor Manuela Barreto, of the University of Exeter, said: “Contrary to what people may expect, loneliness is not a predicament unique to older people.
“In fact, younger people report greater feelings of loneliness.
“Since loneliness stems from the sense that one’s social connections are not as good as desired, this might be due to the different expectations younger and older people hold.
“The age pattern we discovered seems to hold across many countries and cultures.”
Participants of the online survey, held in 2018, answered four questions on loneliness: Do you feel a lack of companionship?, Do you feel left out?, Do you feel isolated from others?, and Do you feel in tune with people around you?
Loneliness increased as levels of individualism increased, irrespective of age, while it decreased with age for both women and men, the study found.
Male participants reported more loneliness than females at all ages and in all levels of individualism.
Prof Barreto said particular attention should be paid to how social changes might be affecting young people during the coronavirus lockdown.
She said: “Though it is true that younger people are better able to use technology to access social relationships, it is also known than when this is done as a replacement – rather than an extension – of those relationships, it does not mitigate loneliness.”
As the survey was voluntary, it only represents those willing to express their feelings of loneliness, rather than being representative of the broader population.
The paper, Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness”, is published in the journal Personality And Individual Differences.