Student life: Having lots of fun? Loneliness in university students

19-12-2017

Blog by Maaike Verhagen


Student life is regularly considered as one of the best periods in your life in which you could have lots of fun with others. Student life usually takes place in vivid and dynamic environments, with lots of opportunities to connect to others, to hang out on the campus or in bars, to play sports together, to go on cultural outings, to exchange ideas, opinions and so on. This provides students with various opportunities for making friends. Next to this, smart phones come with the possibility to be connected to others in an online world as well. In fact, one never has to be alone and one could suppose that there is no reason for students to feel lonely. However, that is not what a recent survey on our Radboud campus tells us… One out of four students feels lonely! That’s is quite a high and shocking number. Radboud’s Board of Governors (College van Bestuur) has acknowledged that these numbers are problematic and that is deserves special attention. This is why a working group on this topic has been compiled.

One out of four students feels lonely.

Loneliness

To tackle this problem, an important question to begin with is ‘What is loneliness?’ It is usually defined as an unpleasant or negative emotional response to a mismatch between desired and actual quantity and quality of social relations (Perlman & Peplau, 1981). This means that one can feel lonely even when having many friends (if there is a lack of quality). On the other hand, some people’s social needs are already met by having only one or two high quality relationships. Thus, the individuals’ perception on their social imbedding plays an important role. This suggests that the concept of loneliness should be distinguished from aloneness (which has positive effects on well-being) and social isolation (the actual absence of social relations).  

Survey and next steps

When we look at the findings of the survey from our student population, we can see that there is no real difference in loneliness between men and women.  However, we do see that our international student population report feeling lonely more frequently (you may have read an example in Ken’s blog). Because we wanted to know in more detail what loneliness means according to our students, and also -and even more importantly- we wanted to know how they think we can tackle loneliness on our campus, we invited students into organized focus groups to discuss it with us. The information they gave us (especially on how to reduce loneliness) is the starting point for an interdisciplinary thinktank that will follow-up on these insights after the Christmas break.

The first step in solving a problem as difficult as loneliness would be to identify previous programs aimed at reducing loneliness in varying population groups. Unfortunately, despite all good intentions, intervention efforts so far have mainly failed. For example, in elderly, increasing social network size didn’t really pay-off and teaching them how to use computers (e.g., email and Skype) to facilitate social contacts was also largely unsuccessful. This does not really come as a surprise as we have come to understand that loneliness is related to the perception of social relationships and not purely to quantity or frequency of social contacts. Currently, quite a few efforts are undertaken to identify effective ingredients for separate subgroups (see for example this TEDx talk about the use of ‘warm’ technology to combat loneliness in elderly). And last year, an important report was launched which describes several local initiatives in the Netherlands and provides direction for further development of intervention programs.

Next to these local policies to reduce loneliness, it has also been prioritized on the political agenda. Eight million euros are reserved to spend on effective local campaigns, actions and events to combat loneliness. This is clearly needed as health consequences are severe and cost society a lot. However, it is important to mention here  that we should not be concerned about the financial picture related to this. A calculation by Deloitte has shown that spending one euro on interventions saves health costs by more than one euro, which means any investment will pay itself back in more than equal measure.

Thus, what has been evidently missing this far - and is still missing - are efforts targeted onto the student population. As targeted interventions may be the starting point to reduce loneliness on campus, we would love to hear your opinion on this. Discussions in the student focus groups led, amongst others, to the suggestion that more meeting places across campus could facilitate social interactions. We are really curious what you think would help you and others to feel less lonely (also more permanently). Please leave a reply below and help the thinktank move forward in exploring your suggestions and ideas in more depth. Before next Summer we will present our findings to the executive board and give advice on how to tackle loneliness on our campus, as nobody wants to feel lonely, right?

Further reading/watching

Author

Maaike Verhagen

Maaike Verhagen is assistant professor within the Developmental Psychopathology group of the Behavioural Science Institute. She conducted many molecular genetic studies in relation to various forms of psychopathology and loneliness and is currently interested in belongingness needs, emotional processes, and internalizing problems in adolescents.

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