A major new report from ChildLine reveals they gave 4,636 counselling services that were devoted to loneliness in 2017-18. That’s a 14 per cent increase on last year. The youngest person was just 10 years old.
This latest story adds to an incredibly alarming narrative. Young people feel more and more isolated and lonely. We also know that mental health problems among young people are on the rise. According to Britain’s top GP, loneliness is as bad for your health as chronic conditions. So, what we’re dealing with is a hidden and silent epidemic.
What has caused this rise in loneliness? According to the report, the answer is social media. But this feels a bit simplistic. I’m not denying social media plays a role because of course it does. It’s also true to say that this obsessive and often undisciplined access to technology has not always produced happy consequences.
But let’s not pretend that social media is the only culprit. It’s too convenient to blame Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. It’s a dangerously superficial answer to a serious problem. We need to look beyond the headlines and face up to what I think is the real cause of this problem.
The root cause of loneliness that needs to be addressed is not social media but family breakdown. This problem has been growing bigger and bigger. It effects every sector of society. Its cost is felt by every government department. Family breakdown is one of the chief reasons behind the epidemic of loneliness in the UK. Today, children are still more likely to own a smartphone than live with their dad. It’s no great leap to suggest that family breakdown can lead to young people spending more time on social media as one way of coping with the fallout.
According to the Marriage Foundation, if current trends continue, any child born in the UK only has a 50/50 chance of living with both parents by the time they are 15. This is a shocking and scandalous statistic. Young people are increasingly having to learn to cope with broken homes. The impact on their own health is often not good. Again, Marriage Foundation research showed family breakdown was the chief culprit behind poor mental health in children. Those from broken homes are also far more likely to have self-esteem issues.
The point is that family breakdown results in significant changes in lifestyle. It means young people can go from a home with both their parents to living with just one and sometimes, without ever seeing the other parent again. It can mean adjusting to a new step-parent. Family breakdown means siblings can be split up.
All of this has consequences. Some children seem blessed with the resilience to cope. Others find it more difficult. Still others are embarrassed to admit they are struggling. Yet we cannot pretend or even pin most of the blame on social media. We must be prepared to look beyond that and ask deeper questions about the state of society.
We also need to have a conversation about the role parenting plays in these latest figures. There is such a thing as good parenting and bad parenting. Is it responsible to allow children so much access to technology? Do we want to encourage them to spend so much time on social media?
Faced as we are with this crisis of family breakdown which is the real and root cause of this loneliness epidemic, we need bold, courageous and determined leadership on this issue. This year, a group of more than 50 Conservative MPs and Peers put together a manifesto for strengthening families. It is a hugely significant document. It outlines 18 concrete policy steps to improve family life in the UK.
For example, the manifest called for a Minister for Families to be appointed at Cabinet level. Their role would be drive policies across government that re-prioritise the family. This will be hard work and would require long-term thinking. We are crying out for such policies today.
It’s too easy to blame social media. The real problems behind loneliness go much deeper. Families are the bedrock of a truly strong and stable society. The best environment to help young people cope with loneliness in within the family context. Family life is God’s design. It’s not perfect and it never will be. But we desperately need bold action because at the moment, the cost of family breakdown is just too high. Spending too much time on social media is one problem. But behind it lies an ever more serious challenge. It’s vital we take steps to address it.
Nola Leach is chief executive of CARE (Christian Action Research and Education)