A new study examined differences in the experience of loneliness across cultures, age, and gender, and the interaction between these factors. It found that young people, men, and people in “individualistic” societies report higher levels of loneliness.
Scientists analyzed the frequency of loneliness reported by 46,054 participants aged 16–99 years, around the world. It is the first study to come from the BBC Loneliness Experiment. The outcomes of the study reported a steady decrease in loneliness as people age.
Based on the findings, a young man living in an individualistic society – such as the UK or the US – is more likely to report feeling lonely than an older woman in a collectivist society – such as China or Brazil.
The study was carried out by Exeter, Manchester, and Brunel universities.
Professor Manuela Barreto, of the University of Exeter, said, “Contrary to what people may expect, loneliness is not a predicament unique to older people. Younger people report greater feelings of loneliness.”
“Since loneliness stems from the sense that one’s social connections are not as good as desired, this might be due to the different expectations younger and older people hold. The age pattern we discovered seems to hold across many countries and cultures.”
Professor Pamela Qualter, from the University of Manchester, said: “About gender, the existing evidence is mixed. There is an awareness that admitting to feeling ‘lonely’ can be incredibly stigmatizing for men. However, when this word is not used in the measures, men sometimes report more loneliness than women. This is indeed what we found.”
Using survey responses from 237 countries, scientists were able to carry out an unprecedented analysis of cultural differences.
Professor Barreto said, “This is particularly important because the evidence for cultural differences in loneliness is very mixed, and culture can affect actual and desired social interactions in opposite directions. Also, it can be argued that admitting to feeling lonely is also more stigmatizing in individualistic societies, where people are expected to be self-reliant and autonomous.”
“Again, our use of a measure that did not directly refer to loneliness allowed us to show that people living in more individualistic societies report more loneliness than people living in more collectivist societies.”
Professor Barreto said, “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, particular attention should be paid to how social changes might be affecting young people.”
“Though younger people are indeed better able to use technology to access social relationships, it is also known than when this is done as a replacement – rather than an extension – of those relationships. It does not mitigate loneliness.”
- Manuela Barreto et al., Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066