The loneliness of the long-terrified youngsters

According to research released this week by Dr Rebecca Harris of the University of Bolton, loneliness is a growing problem facing not only the old, but people of working age, too. She found that more than a quarter (27 per cent) of respondents only interact socially with others once a week or less because they’re prioritising their careers. More striking still, Harris found that loneliness is experienced most acutely by those aged between 18 and 34. She reports that 83 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds experience loneliness and only spend 55 minutes a day interacting with friends, neighbours or family members.

Harris’s findings do initially appear surprising. We live in an age when over half of young people go to university – three-to-four years normally associated with a booming social life, excessive drinking and partying, and all-round hedonism. Universities sell themselves on the quality of the ‘student experience’ they offer, and many halls of residence are now part of large complexes (known as ‘student villages’), an attempt to encourage socialising among students.

However, Harris’s findings also come at a time when more and more young people are choosing to stay at home and live comfortably with their parents. Little wonder the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs has slumped to levels below that of our parents. So why are we youngsters all sitting at home moping around? Because, since the 1990s, the social world has increasingly come to be seen as a place of danger and risk.

From an early age, children are taught about the dangers and risks of forming relationships. Primary schools have even started implementing a ‘no best friends’ policy to shield children from the risk of falling out. Such policies are accompanied by the growth of personal, social and health education (PSHE) throughout the school system. PSHE classes can involve anything from mundane lessons on how to open a bank account to classes on ‘how to avoid paedophiles and stalkers’.

The implications of the PSHE curriculum are wide and far-reaching, and recent calls by education secretary Nicky Morgan to extend sex education are frightening. As spiked’s education editor Joanna Williams wrote at the time: ‘Allowing the state to condition children’s attitudes towards the most private area of their lives will do more harm than good. Tomorrow’s young adults will be denied the pleasure and the pain of working things out for themselves.’

Not that any of this will surprise university administrators. Campuses across the UK have been demonising social relationships for years. Drinking, taking drugs, clubbing and even walking the street after dark are painted as risky and challenging experiences for today’s vulnerable students. As I wrote in 2013 of my experience of the ‘This is not an invitation to rape me’ campaign at Sheffield Students’ Union: ‘Scaremongering is no way to approach students’ lives; it merely creates fearful, suspicious graduates… damag[ing] men’s and women’s perceptions of one another.’

But, even the ins and outs of a university education have come under attack. From No Platform, to Safe Spaces and trigger warnings, today’s students are warned away from social interaction. And why? Well, you might come across a nasty, nasty man… (Sorry, that’s terribly cis of me.) You might come across a nasty, nasty person who might say something you find incredibly distasteful.

It’s no wonder, then, that young people in the prime of their life, people who ought to be exploring the world and managing the hangover, are sitting at home and keeping themselves to themselves. When the social world is painted in such a disparaging light, what can we expect?

This piece was originally published by Spiked magazine (21 April 2015)

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