Increasing loneliness among young people due to working from home and online education

When working from home and online education first arrived as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people felt the change of pace felt was a novelty with several benefits. In the middle of a global emergency, being able to work and study from home through digital technology made things convenient in terms of time, transportation, accessibility and safety. It felt new and comfortable, and it was the logical response to a crisis of public health. A few months later, however, many felt that working from home and online education have become a problem that weighs down their emotional health, especially because it creates feelings of loneliness. As it turns out, young people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness in corona times.

A report on corona behaviour by i&o Research points to that conclusion. The study showed that, by May, 55% of young Dutch people between 18 and 24 felt lonely because of the crisis, compared to 49% in March. For the group 25- to 34-year-olds, 48% experienced loneliness in May, up from 29% in March, an increase of almost 20%. This data is significant, especially when the levels of loneliness for the rest of the population remain below 30%, with a smaller increase during the corona crisis.

Being able to maintain social relations digitally does not compensate for the lack of social contact in the physical world, like school, work and recreation. An international phenomenon, loneliness among young people during the pandemic is related to the biological function of socialization in young people. As Gregory Lewis, researcher of the neurobiology of social interaction at Indiana University in the US, points out: “Young brains need social connection to feel secure about their identity and place in the world.” Similarly, Hans Alderliesten, of the Movisie knowledge institute for social studies, states that young people can be particularly affected, because they are in a stage of life in which they need to develop socially: “They need to go out, travel and create new relationships. They are very much engaged in self-development, but that is difficult now. Many spaces where they have their social life, like school and work, are closed.”

This may explain why many young people are going back to the office, even though it is not required or even advised against. As reported by The Volkskrant, by September the number of people using public transport has been gradually increasing, and many of them are young people who miss their coworkers or the social experience of the workplace. According to the Dutch Travel Panel (NVP) of DAT.Mobility, commuting transit has increased: in September, 70% of workers were commuting to work, compared to 50% at the start of the lockdown. This could become relevant since the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has shown that 10% of all Covid infections can be traced back to the workplace, which makes it the third source of infection after households and family gatherings.

While much of the attention during the pandemic has been directed towards vulnerable populations like the elderly, mental health in young people during the corona crisis remains a less attended, albeit important, subject of consideration. In times when additional isolation measures might be announced in the short or medium term, as suggested by the Dutch government late September, research suggest that loneliness in young people needs to be taken into account in the current circumstances. While isolation and loneliness are not the same, as the Red Cross points out, “unwanted and prolonged isolation can have a troubling knock-on effect on our attitude towards others. Eventually, it can make us distrust and disengage even when we get the chance to interact”. Therefore, finding and maintaining ways to socially connect remains important for however long the corona crisis will last, especially for younger people.

Written by Juan Álvarez Umbarila