13 Feb 2024

Loneliness epidemic plaguing young Australians

13/02/2024 4:12:44 PM

GPs are being urged to warn young patients of the ‘insidious harms of online interactions’ as data reveals 42% are experiencing distress.

Sad teen with phone in her bedroom.
More than 42% of people aged 15-24 were psychologically distressed in 2021.

Locked down for years, isolated from their friends, and reliant on the internet for connection – it is a triple threat which has left Australia’s young people suffering like never before.
Fresh data has shed a light on the concerning new trend plaguing patients aged 15–24, with loneliness and psychological distress skyrocketing.
Released this week, the 18th edition of the annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) report examines data gathered between 2001 and 2021, tracking more than 17,000 people across 9000 households.
Importantly, this edition included the initial years of the COVID-19 pandemic, confirming there had been a significant impact on patients’ social interactions and leaving researchers concerned about its long-term effects.
The survey found that overall, psychological distress levels declined with age, with the youngest age groups reporting the highest average distress scores in 2021.
More than 42% of people aged 15–24 were psychologically distressed in 2021, up from 18% a decade earlier.
Between 2007 and 2021, the prevalence of psychological distress increased by 51% for men and 63% for women.
Dr Cathy Andronis, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Psychological Medicine told newsGP the study’s results are not surprising, putting much of that distress down to internet usage and online interactions.  
‘Adolescence and young adulthood necessitate transitioning from childhood dependencies on parents and other caring adults to making your own choices and attaining autonomy and expressing your individuality,’ she said.
‘These are challenging achievements at the best of times but with the daily avalanche of too much information, too many choices and unhelpful distractions online, people are exhausted and overwhelmed.
‘Young people are distracted by social media which sucks them in, often for materialistic or consumer purposes – our phones are addictive and time consuming.  
‘So, when most of a cohort are online, there are fewer opportunities to meet and interact face to face and therefore develop good essential social skills. It’s a catch-22 situation.’
The HILDA data also found loneliness is now highest amongst young people, in a reversal of previous trends.
Between 2001 and 2009, the highest proportion of lonely people was those aged 65 and older, but by 2021, this group contained the lowest proportion of lonely individuals.
Instead, it is now those in the 15–24 age group suffering most.
The survey’s co-author Dr Ferdi Botha said there is a clear trend of younger people becoming lonelier and feeling more isolated as time goes on.
‘If there aren’t actions taken or policies implemented to intervene, we may see loneliness and psychological distress increasing in the younger generations and this may lead to lower mental and physical wellbeing and other wider societal issues,’ he said.
‘Loneliness increased in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for young people, there is a longer-term trend increase apparent.
‘It may be that this is partly connected to growth in smartphones and social media use.’
Dr Andronis described this loneliness epidemic as a crisis, saying COVID-19 lockdowns only made things worse.
‘The pandemic caused millions of children to miss out on invaluable real social skills development,’ she said.
‘We need to start addressing the addictive nature of our competitive, materialist, and consumerist society with the virtual world slowly overtaking the natural one.
‘We are evolved to live in nature and use all our senses and to use these senses to communicate both verbally and nonverbally. When we are not living balanced natural lives, we become sick.’
For the first time, the survey also examined the impacts of vaping, finding 14% of individuals aged 15 and above had tried electronic cigarettes or vaping devices in 2021.
Men were slightly more likely to use these products than women, while those who smoked tobacco had a 19 percentage-point higher probability of vaping compared to people who didn’t smoke.
Separately, HILDA researchers also shed a light on patients’ working habits, finding 22% of employed men and 30% of employed women reported working when physically and/or mentally unwell.
Those with a moderate or severe disability or in poor mental health, were much more likely to work when unwell.
Overall, Dr Andronis said her advice to GPs speaking with young patients, often battling exhaustion, financial difficulties, sleep problems and poor diet, is to make them feel safe and trusted.
‘Talk to patients about the insidious harms of online interactions and encourage people to turn off phones and devices and demand better protection by governments,’ she said.
‘The internet unfortunately enables unscrupulous people to engage in bad and illegal behaviours, scamming, deep fakes, trolling, pornography, deception, and all of this leads to loss of trust.  
‘Without trust we cannot feel safe secure and without security, we cannot be mentally well.’
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Dr Deborah Uwa Sambo   13/02/2024 10:45:43 PM

Not surprising . Lonely Planet fits into Australia like a glove!.
It is not only young people who are lonely. Large swathes of patients that I see are lonely. amongst ethnic minorities it is even worse. Leading to "clustering" of people into their various shelter groups- ethnic, age, clubs. But even that just reveals another deep layer of loneliness on close examination. It answers the the eternal conundrum of living and dying- Born alone, live alone and die alone.
I have tried to understand why this is so much worse in Australia compared to other places I have lived in. My simple answer is "too much Government in peoples lives"! From Cradle to grave, the Government in Australia is in everything you do virtually. Giving you an initial sense of "independence" and a false "I do not need you" attitude which gradually isolates people and removes a sense of inter dependence/interconnectedness on a human level. eventually people crystallise into individual, sad and lonely fossils.