These days it feels like we’re more connected than ever before. Most of us have smart phones and are glued to our screens sending messages and constantly checking our social media feeds. I myself use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram daily to connect and communicate with my constituents.
With young people sharing more of their lives online and making hundreds of virtual connections every day, it is sometimes assumed that they have more friends and busier social lives than the generations before them.
These assumptions, however, are inaccurate. Cal Strode of the Mental Health Foundation said in April, “Teens can have thousands of friends online and yet feel unsupported and isolated. Technology, including social media, could be exacerbating social isolation.”
The Government’s loneliness strategy, launched today, also highlights that feeling lonely is no longer something we can just associate with isolated older people. It shows that despite being the most digitally connected generation, younger people are feeling increasingly lonely and disconnected from the real world around them.
Over the past year the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, which I Chair, has been exploring how we can foster stronger connections between generations to build stronger, more integrated communities. Through meeting people in my own constituency and on visits up and down the country, I’ve heard first-hand from both younger and older people about their experiences of loneliness and its potential link to the rise in new technology.
At Meet Me at the Albany, an arts club for the over 60s in South London, older people told me they think younger people see them less because they’re so preoccupied with technology that it’s reducing their face-to-face interactions.
I also visited The Cares Family, which brings young professionals and older neighbours together to help combat loneliness and isolation in some of our biggest cities. Its CEO and founder Alex Smith has been integral to the APPGs inquiry into intergenerational connection and is a speaker at the APPG’s event in parliament today. When I spoke to him about the issue of technology and rising loneliness amongst young people, he said, “In a world of globalisation, digitisation and transience, we’ve somehow prioritised what’s efficient over what’s important. Through our addictions to smart phones and social media, our social groups are fraying and we’re living in an era of deep disconnection – even in a hyper-connected age.”
Like The Cares Family and GoodGym, a community of runners who pair exercise with doing good in their community, there are a few notable organisations that are focused on tackling loneliness by encouraging different generations to spend quality time together. As a country, however, we are not doing enough to create opportunities for the young and old to mix and form meaningful connections and friendships in a way that would reduce social isolation and loneliness across all ages.
While the Government’s loneliness strategy makes a positive step to highlight the need to bridge the gap between generations, more must be done. Funding for projects that bring different age groups together is always welcome, but this is only part of the solution. We must also explore ways to prioritise intergenerational connections using existing resources.
For too long we’ve separated the young and old, thinking that loneliness only affects people once they reach a certain age. With the strategy and recent evidence from the BBC proving that young people are just as lonely, if not more so, now is the time to look at loneliness through an intergenerational prism. Rather than having separate funding pots for younger and older people, local authorities should be encouraged to develop initiatives which bring different generations together, and hopefully tackle the effects that loneliness can have on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Established combined authorities can collaborate and take collective decisions across local authority boundaries. This offers a powerful vehicle for councils to unite and share resources to help build stronger links between the young and old in local communities.
It’s clear that loneliness has become an intergenerational issue and to tackle it we must find long-term intergenerational solutions.