New national program aims to address loneliness among adolescents

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Social prescriptions for activities such as gardening, fishing, attending museums, as well arts & sports clubs are to be offered to children and adolescents who report high levels of loneliness or low community connection as part of a new four-year project led by UCL researchers.

Loneliness is common among young people compared to other age groups in the UK, with one in 10 (11.3%) 10- to 15-year-olds saying they often feel lonely.

The new national programme will work with schools to identify children aged nine to 13 who feel lonely or isolated. The children will then be connected to a link worker or social prescriber who will "prescribe" an activity tailored to the young person's interests and support the young person in engaging with that activity.

The research team will compare outcomes (in terms of wellbeing, reduced loneliness and mental health difficulties, and academic attendance and achievement) among these children over the following year with the outcomes of a control group of children who were signposted to an activity but not given extra support from the social prescriber.

The team is currently recruiting 12 primary and secondary schools for the pilot phase of the project, starting this year, with the aim of later expanding to 30 schools across the UK next year.

Loneliness has become an increasing problem among adolescents in the UK. This problem is especially acute in cities and among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There is promising early evidence that social prescribing can help young people. Our study will add to this evidence base, assessing how effective social prescribing is in reducing loneliness and mental health difficulties, enhancing wellbeing and improving academic attendance and attainment, as well as how cost effective it is.

In our project, a link worker will meet the young person for six to eight sessions, learning what matters most to them, what their gifts and strengths are, in order to provide tailored support, linking them with local organizations and activities that will be of interest to them."

Dr Daniel Hayes, co-principal investigator of the UCL Department of Behavioural Science & Health

Co-principal investigator Professor Daisy Fancourt, of the UCL Department of Behavioural Science & Health, said: "Friendships and social connections are cornerstones of healthy adolescent development. If young people are lonely, they are at increased risk of developing depression, physical problems such as poor sleep, and later ill health, including cardiovascular disease.

"While GPs are increasingly adopting social prescribing for adults, young people are not yet routinely accessing the service, as they tend not to go to the GP for health and wellbeing support in the way that adults might. Our programme will help provide evidence on the potential benefits that social prescribing may have for children too."

In an Office for National Statistics survey released in 2018, 11.3% of 10-15-year-olds in the UK reported often feeling lonely, rising to 19.5% of children living in a city and 27.5% of children on free school meals. Loneliness was also more common among younger children aged 10 to 12 years (14.0%) than among those aged 13 to 15 years (8.6%) and those aged 16 to 24 (9.8%).

Loneliness among adolescents has also increased worldwide. Between 2012 and 2018, loneliness at school increased in 36 out of 37 countries, according to the PISA survey of 15- and 16-year-old students. Nearly twice as many adolescents in 2018 (vs. 2012) had elevated levels of school loneliness, a 2021 study found.

The research programme, entitled INcreasing Adolescent social and Community supporT (INACT) and funded by the Kavli Trust, is a collaboration between researchers at UCL, the University of Manchester, the National Academy for Social Prescribing and the Social Prescribing Youth Network. Those interested in participating should contact [email protected].

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