Guide to measure loneliness

Feeling lonely can harm children's wellbeing, so a new guide aims to help charities identify the problem.

The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that up to one in five Britons felt lonely regularly or always.

In response, the government published a strategy to tackle loneliness in England. This was accompanied by £11.5m to support community organisations to build stronger connections between citizens, including £1.5m earmarked for charities supporting young people - research last year found they are particularly at risk of feeling lonely (see in numbers).

A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness includes a range of measures for tackling the issue, including boosting mental health support, better education for school pupils and appointing a minister for loneliness to oversee joined-up policy.

Identifying loneliness can be difficult, so the What Works Centre for Wellbeing and National Lottery Community Fund has produced a guide on how to measure it. Here is a summary of how to use it.

Defining loneliness

Research has defined loneliness as the negative feelings people experience when their relationships do not meet their expectations. This could be due to a lack of people to talk to or because relationships are not felt to be meaningful. Loneliness is not the same as isolation, which is about the number and type of social connections.

"We shouldn't try to assess how someone feels about their relationships just by counting how many friends or connections they have," the guide explains. "Instead, we should ask them to tell us directly how satisfied they are with those connections."

The questions in the guide are designed to capture people's subjective experiences.

Measuring loneliness

While children have a number of protective factors, such as school, the guide explains that children can feel lonely.

"When we talk to children about loneliness, they tell us about their relationships with friends and family, and point out that they can feel lonely even if surrounded by people," it states.

Problems with friends or issues that make them feel "different" to peers - such as having a disability, living in a poor household, a difficult home life or being in care - can contribute to children feeling lonely. Other factors like bullying, bereavement and mental health problems can both trigger and compound feelings of loneliness and make it harder to overcome them.

"It's particularly important to reduce the stigma of loneliness among young people by making it more acceptable to talk about it, and prepare children to understand and address loneliness in themselves and others," states the guide.

Youth workers' views

  • 82% said it was an issue for young people
  • 73% said young people don't actively seek help
  • 15% said their organisation offered help

Source: A Place to Be, UK Youth, August 2018

Questions to ask children

As part of research to identify the best national measures for loneliness, the Office for National Statistics and The Children's Society carried out testing to find the best questions to ask children.

The four questions that were settled on are similar to those identified for adults and young people aged 16 and over, but the language is simpler. They are appropriate for use with children aged 10 to 15.

The guide says charities working with this age group can ask these questions as part of the evaluation of projects and activities. They are:

1. How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?

2. How often do you feel left out?

3. How often do you feel alone?

4. How often do you feel lonely?

For questions 1-3, there is the option of three answers: "hardly ever or never"; "some of the time"; and "often". For question four, the answer options are: "often/always"; "some of the time"; "occasionally"; "hardly ever"; or "never". Answers are given a score of 1-3, or 1-5 for question four.

Understanding the findings

The guide explains that analysing the answers to look for patterns is an essential part of the evaluation process. How an organisation goes about this may depend on its approach to evaluation, the audience that will use the findings and an individual's analysis skills.

Responses for questions 1-3 can be combined to calculate a "loneliness score" ranging from three to nine for each respondent - the higher the score, the lonelier a child. The guide says there is no agreed threshold above which someone should be considered lonely.

Averaging scores across a sample of children is useful for identifying trends over time and how individuals compare to this. It can also help benchmark a cohort of children with similar groups from other parts of the country.

Conversation tips

The guide explains that loneliness can be a sensitive topic, so conversations about it should be handled with care. For organisations working with vulnerable children and young people, "it will be important to make sure you have the right type of support in place during and after asking them questions so that they can process their feelings and access support if they want to".

Consideration should be given to where loneliness interviews take place and the security of the information once gathered.

"Confidentiality and anonymity are especially important to consider when asking about sensitive topics such as loneliness," it adds.

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