At Springtide™ Research Institute we’ve spent the past year researching the consequences of epidemic loneliness among young people.
The findings are astonishing, heartbreaking, and hopeful… Our newest report, Belonging: Reconnecting America’s Loneliest Generation, documents these findings and offers a research-based pathway forward.
We know, as you do, that young people are increasingly disconnected from the institutional ties that have historically provided a stable web of relationships. For many, this is most obvious—and most poignantly and bitterly felt—in the context of a culture experiencing declining church attendance.
Our research largely confirms these trends, but crucially extends the findings by surveying kids as young as 13 years old. We were heartbroken to uncover stories of young people almost entirely disconnected from caring institutions and, critically, from trusted adults. Among our most salient—and alarming—findings, we learned the following:
- Nearly 1 in 3 young people have only 1 or 0 “trusted adults” in their lives
- Almost 40% of 13-to-25-year-olds report that they often have nobody to talk to.
- 1 in 3 young people feel alone much of the time.
We expected to find that attendance at religious gatherings—worship services, Bible studies, small groups, or other activities—would ward off these feelings of loneliness. Instead, we discovered that even for those who are connected to religious organizations in some way, these feelings persist. Indeed, our data shows no difference between the sense of loneliness among young people who attend religious services and those who do not. In fact, one-fifth (20%) of young people who attend a religious service at least once a week still report feeling completely alone.
But our passion is to discover what does help a young person feel connected and cared for. Belonging found that 62% of young people with zero trusted adult relationships feel completely alone. But, incredibly, for young people with five or more trusted adult relationships, only 9% feel alone.
The data makes our heartfelt response clear: We need to increase the number of trusted adult relationships in young peoples’ lives.
But what do meaningful connections, trusted adults, and caring relationships look and feel like? How does we go about becoming a force for good in a young person’s life in this way? In Belonging we outline a three-step, data-driven process that cultivates the experience of belonging for young people. We call this the Belongingness Process:
- I am Noticed
- I am Named
- I am Known
This Noticed, Named, Known framework offers a simple, intentional model for forming relationships of meaning and belonging.
Many teenagers confirm that they feel unseen and invisible in their day-to-day lives. In other words, young people often feel like they don’t matter. So the simple, straightforward act of acknowledging their presence is powerful. When you acknowledge them, you’re doing a small thing that has a big impact.
Building on the foundation of Noticing, the Naming step involves more than simply knowing a young person’s name (though that is important). A name is an indication of a person’s identity, which is multifaceted: What are their likes and dislikes? What are their struggles and triumphs? And what do they care about? In a recorded conversation about the “Future of Religion,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says community is the place a person is known by name and missed when they’re gone. It’s almost impossible to miss someone who isn’t “named” within a community in this substantial way.
In this step, a young person is not a passive attendee in a group, but a full participant. Things wouldn’t be the same if they were gone. So the key to making a young person feel truly and fully known is to accept them without judgment. This doesn’t mean you can’t hold them accountable, but it does mean making sure they know they can’t be swiftly or suddenly rejected if they misstep. They are integral to the group or relationship, and they know it.
Whether these steps seem familiar or novel, now is the time to go back to the basics—back to relationships—to address the epidemic loneliness impacting today’s youngest generation.
This is a critical time for faith leaders, youth pastors, and volunteers to do what is at the heart of their faith: to reach out to the needy and broken-hearted in our midst and invite them into life-giving, Jesus-centered community. Relationships with trusted adults—with you—can make all the difference in the lives of young people. It just takes an intentional process of building trust. If means making sure young people are noticed, named, and known by you and those at your organization.