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Social prescriptions to be offered to combat childhood loneliness

Social prescriptions to be offered to combat childhood loneliness

Attending sports clubs and activities such as gardening and fishing will be offered as ‘social prescriptions’ to children and adolescents who report high levels of loneliness.

The new national programme will work with schools to identify children between the ages of nine and 13 who report low levels of community connection or high levels of isolation. The children will be connected to a link worker or ‘social prescriber’ who will work with them to identify activities and hobbies with which they can get involved.

The project, led by researchers at University College London (UCL), will examine how effectively social prescribing can improve the lives and wellbeing of young people.

Loneliness is becoming an increasing problem among young people with one in ten children aged between 10 and 15 years reporting feeling lonely often, which can lead to both physical and mental ill health.

Professor Daisy Fancourt, one of the principal investigators on the project from UCL, said: ‘Friendships and social connections are cornerstones of healthy adolescent development. If young people are lonely, they are at increased risk of developing depression, physical problems such as poor sleep, and later ill health, including cardiovascular disease.’

The research team is recruiting 12 primary and secondary schools across the UK as part of the pilot phase of the four-year project in order to identify children struggling with loneliness.  Over the next four years, the number of schools involved will increase to 30.

Link workers will meet with children over six to eight sessions and ‘prescribe’ an activity tailored to the young person’s interests. A ‘social prescriber’  will learn what is important to the young person, linking them with local organisations and activities that suit their interests and offering tailored support to engage with the activity.

The team at UCL will assess the effectiveness of social prescribing in terms of well-being, reduced loneliness and mental health difficulties, and academic attendance and achievement. A control group of children who are signposted to an activity but not offered tailored and ongoing support from a social prescriber will also be assessed.

Co-principal investigator Dr Daniel Hayes, from the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL, said: ‘Loneliness has become an increasing problem among adolescents in the UK. This problem is especially acute in cities and among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

He added: ‘There is promising early evidence that social prescribing can help young people. Our study will add to this evidence base, assessing how effective social prescribing is in reducing loneliness and mental health difficulties, enhancing well-being and improving academic attendance and attainment, as well as how cost effective it is.’

In an Office for National Statistics survey released in 2018, 11.3 per cent of 10 to 15-year-olds in the UK reported often feeling lonely. This rose to nearly 20 per cent among children living in a city and 27.5 per cent of children on free school meals. Loneliness was also more common among younger children aged 10 to 12 years (14.0 per cent) than among those aged 13 to 15 years (8.6 per cent) and those aged 16 to 24 (9.8 per cent).

Professor Fancourt added: ‘While GPs are increasingly adopting social prescribing for adults, young people are not yet routinely accessing the service, as they tend not to go to the GP for health and wellbeing support in the way that adults might. Our programme will help provide evidence on the potential benefits that social prescribing may have for children too.’

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