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Is There an Increase in Loneliness Among University Students?

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In recent years, the focus of loneliness research has been upon the older generations, with organisations such as Age UK helping the ageing population to overcome lonely feelings. Age UK has used interventions such as befriending services and planned lunch clubs which allow people to engage with each other on a weekly basis.

In 2018, the UK Government launched its first loneliness strategy with the aim to support people in building relationships and maintaining communication with people around them. The strategy was developed due to the increase in jobs becoming more solitary and also the fact that we are now living in a more digital society where we can often go a full day of working and travelling without having a conversation with one person.

Robert Stuart Weiss developed a theory of loneliness and suggested that in life, we as humans need to fulfil different social needs. The fulfilment of social needs will then lead us to not developing overwhelming feelings of loneliness.

Social needs can be things such as a sense of worth and belonging; attachment to either parents or friends; social integration within a community; nurturance (being looked after) and guidance. As children, these social needs can be fulfilled by parents, families and the children we go to school with. However, as we hit young adulthood and move away from family and friends, these relationships can become more distant and we need to seek the social needs from other sources in our lives.

Since being in lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis, it has become more evident that anyone can have feelings of being lonely. People living alone in lockdown may have had limited contact with other colleagues, friends and family, and this may have caused feelings of loneliness to increase. Digital media such as Skype and Zoom can help but from my own experience, nothing can replace having a cup of coffee with someone, even at the suggested two metre distance in the garden. 

One group of people which you may not think of being lonely is that of university students. Being at university is usually advertised as a very sociable experience with lots of events taking place and teaching taking place in groups, however, this does not necessarily mean that feelings of loneliness are not presented. Research has suggested that young people, and in particular university students, will face loneliness at some point during their education. 

One study investigated loneliness in university students of both postgraduate and undergraduate level, and they interviewed the students on their experiences. It was found that the students had several reasons for feeling lonely such as moving away from home and becoming more independent with decreasing support from parents.

The research also found that the students used a variety of coping mechanisms to help overcome feelings of loneliness and these coping mechanisms were things such as using accommodation (sharing space with others) as a form of distraction from feeling lonely.

The current COVID-19 pandemic could be one thing to increase loneliness in university students, and I do believe that this is one possible important area for future research. As universities are now having to decide upon how classes are delivered in the upcoming year, the increased use of technology and more online lectures could mean that students have less face-to-face contact with each other.

Thinking back to the theory from Weiss, this may ultimately mean that those social needs are not met if students cannot fully engage with each other both inside and out of lecture times. Of course, we do need to consider the mental wellbeing and the health and safety of students (and staff too!) which means that face-to-face teaching situations could be reduced for some time to come. A mixture of small face-to-face and online classes, in the form of blended learning techniques, may be beneficial here to try and find a balance of having some form of structured contact between people.

Whatever happens in relation to university teaching in the future, students should be supported upon their return to university in the next academic year. Life will bring some changes for everyone and if loneliness is on the increase, looking at how this could be reduced is one of the important things that could be done in the future of university education.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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