Feeling Lonely: The Experiences of Young People Aged 12 to 13 Years

Lewis, Jacqui (2007). Feeling Lonely: The Experiences of Young People Aged 12 to 13 Years. MRes thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000fa4c


Loneliness is a widely experienced, disagreeable emotion, when prolonged it is potentially detrimental to the current and future well-being of young people. It is principally considered to occur when relationships do not meet the expectations, or needs, of affected individuals. Much research about loneliness in children and adolescents has focused on measuring, as opposed to understanding, loneliness based on evaluations of school-peer relationships, although latterly parental relationships have been considered. Little account of other relationships and contextual factors has been taken. It is suggested that increasing use of a variety of digitally-mediated-communication (DMC) is likely to shape interactions and possibly affect experiences of loneliness.

This project used a semi-structured questionnaire to obtain reports of usage of DMC and experiences of loneliness from 41 (21 boys and 20 girls) young people aged 12-13 years. A constructivist phenomenological framework framed the collection and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data. Correlations identified and themes developed were conceptualised as ‘tools’ to aid understanding of the lived-experience of loneliness. One important aim of this project was to consider existing theoretical frameworks, in the light of participants’ reports, with a view to planning future research. These frameworks included consideration of the affordances and limitations of DMC, relationships and the experience of loneliness.

Gender differences were noted in use of DMC and reports of loneliness. Boys tended to use more computer-mediated-communication and fewer voice calls and SMS texting than did girls. Statistical analysis demonstrated significant associations for boys between loneliness, parental relationships and having a ‘good’ friend. Girls demonstrated none of these; instead, analysis suggested they found social-networks more significant. Both sexes reported experiencing loneliness in all the four domains investigated: at home, at school, alone, and when with people, although girls showed some relationships between these domains and boys did not. Thematic analysis of the written narrative data concluded these gender differences were not as marked as statistical analysis had suggested, and interpreted major themes related to loneliness as being ‘personal rejection’ and ’physical separation’. Both were related to friendships, parental separation was mentioned but evidence of parental rejection was not found within this small sample. Relationships reported as influencing experiences of loneliness by the young people included: parents, school-friends, friends outside of school, having a good friend, siblings, aunts and cousins.

Tentative associations were made between DMC use and the experience of loneliness namely, having fewer forms of DMC available and increased Internet use were associated with increased reports of loneliness supporting the need for further investigation.

Revisiting the literature, having established a coherent framework encompassing loneliness, relationships and usage of DMC was required, identified a paper by Gergen (2002) considering the effects of ‘absent presence’ on relationships. It is suggested that this is more pertinent to understanding DMC and relationships than previous theories based on comparatively limited forms of DMC. The congruence in approach with constructivist phenomenology, especially in terms of the significance of culturally framed discourse was noted. Additionally Gergen’s theorising encompasses the two approaches considered most appropriate for understanding loneliness after examination of the data, the social needs approach emphasising different types of relationships and the interactionist approach emphasising the importance of situating research within the appropriate cultural background. It is suggested that discourse analysis of both ‘natural’ and interview data, perhaps utilising ethnographic procedures designed to consider context will facilitate further examination of the effects of DMC on young people’s experiences of loneliness.

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