Childline campaign tackles problem of loneliness in kids as young as six
As Childline reveals increasing numbers of children are saying they're lonely, Lisa Salmon asks the counselling service why so many youngsters feel so alone, and what parents can do to help
THEY say 'you're never alone with a phone', but clearly that's not the case for thousands of children in Britain and Northern Ireland. Despite the increased connectivity of the modern high-tech world, last year the children's helpline Childline delivered 4,063 counselling sessions – the equivalent of 11 a day – to children and teenagers suffering from loneliness.
And it seems that phones are not just keeping young people connected, they're also making some of them feel alone. Childline counsellors say social media is leading youngsters to make unrealistic comparisons about their lives, that leave them feeling ugly, unpopular and isolated.
But it's not just tech that leads to loneliness – other more traditional problems include struggling to fit into new surroundings after moving house or school, and losing someone close after a death or broken relationship.
This is the first year Childline has recorded loneliness as an issue, a move prompted by an increasing number of calls mentioning the problem. And while teenagers are the age group most likely to call Childline to discuss loneliness, the problem is also upsetting much younger children, with even six-year-olds ringing to seek help for a problem more commonly associated with the older generation.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, which runs Childline, says: "There is no single reason why so many young people are suffering from loneliness, and as result, there is no simple fix to the problem.
"What is clear is that the world is becoming an increasingly complex place to grow up in, with children and teenagers facing daily pressures to achieve what society defines as a successful life – grades, relationships, physical appearance. It is therefore vital that children and teenagers have people around them, in particular parents, who they can really open up to about how they are feeling."
Young people often tell counsellors they don't want to talk to their parents about their problems, as they're worried what they'll think. The NSPCC suggests parents who struggle to get their children to open up to them should:
:: Start a conversation when no-one will interrupt, perhaps on a bike ride or car journey.
:: Try not to overreact when your child tells you something alarming – it may stop them from confiding in you again.
:: If your child isn't ready to talk straight away, try again in a few days.
:: Listening is important and shows your child you value what they're telling you.
Childline says children tell its counsellors they feel 'invisible' and misunderstood, and that those closest to them are struggling to understand their feelings. As a result, they often spend a lot of time in their bedrooms or online, which only intensifies their loneliness.
In the worst cases, some become so desperate they self-harm to cope with their negative feelings, or even contemplate suicide.
The NSPCC found 73 per cent of counselling sessions about loneliness were with girls, making them five times more likely to contact Childline for help about the issue than boys.
Because counsellors have noticed increasing numbers of young people talking to them about loneliness over the last few years, the helpline service has created a webpage tiny.cc/lonely on the Childline website to support lonely young people.
Dame Esther Rantzen, founder and president of Childline, says: "I think we in the adult world are addicted to being busy, and our children are suffering as a result. Of course many of us have to work hard, but sometimes that leaves too little time for the people we care about most, our children."
Rantzen says she's also worried that gathering around the table to eat and talk together has become obsolete.
"Families are too busy to eat together, to talk about their days together, and share their worries," she says. "So Childline has become the place young people choose to confide in. They tell us we make them feel valued, so they have the confidence to talk about their feelings of loneliness."
:: For help and advice, contact Childline on 0800 1111 or visit www.childline.org.uk