SPARE a thought for the children this Easter – and I don’t mean buy yet another chocolate egg and hope it will keep them quiet.
Childline, the charity which helps young people in distress, says that more than 4,000 children have contacted them in the last year simply because they are lonely. These youngsters, who ranged in age from six to 19, told counsellors that they felt “invisible” or that their family “struggled to understand” them.
I have two children, aged 11 and 14. I know just how desperate a child must be if they feel they have no recourse but to ring a helpline. It takes a lot of courage.
Where are their parents for a start? Grandparents? Aunts? Uncles? Trusted friends or neighbours? Whatever happened to multi-generational families building relationships which span the age divide?
I’m asking these questions, but we all must. And not just at special occasions such as Easter. Loneliness is the epidemic of our age. This newspaper has its own agenda-setting loneliness campaign which raises awareness and supports a range of initiatives to help those who feel alienated and cut-off from other people.
However, we should all stop and think every day about those left alone to retreat slowly but surely into their own world.
Some of the tales Childline tells about young people are heart-breaking. Even in the most affluent families – and perhaps especially in the most affluent families – material wealth cannot make up for emotional support.
I know of families with two cars, several holidays abroad a year and every material comfort you can imagine, but night after night the children are corralled in their bedroom with nothing for company but the latest smart-TV and a games console.
No one talks to these children, really talks to them. They come home from school and both their parents are likely to be at work. They take a microwave meal to their room. Talk to their friends only through social media. Don’t belong to any clubs or societies or engage in any activities outside the home.
Their parents, meanwhile, are obsessed with “me time”. This has to be the most selfish concept ever invented. We all need a break, granted, but not at the expense of neglecting our own children to go off and be “pampered” in a beauty salon all day Saturday or sit in a restaurant whilst our offspring stay home and ping the microwave for company.
How many parents are guilty of allowing this to happen under their noses and their own roof, without realising what is really going on in the minds of their sons and daughters?
Childline says that more than 4,000 children have contacted them. This is just the tip of the iceberg because these are only the ones we know about. What about the rest, the young people who feel so insecure and adrift that they can’t even find the confidence to pick up the phone or send an email or text?
Remember these are just the children. What about the countless numbers of isolated adults? Earlier this year the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness – which the late MP set in motion before her death – found that 93 per cent of Gransnet users said that it was possible to feel lonely even if you had a partner or family.
A large number of these over-50s social media users said it was easier to talk about their feelings of isolation when they were online and anonymous.
What we have here is an emerging – and harrowing – picture of families all over the UK who appear happy and content on the surface. Beneath the façade though is an increasingly desperate situation – lack of social contact, severed emotional ties and shrinking opportunities for the generations to find support in each other.
I am in no position to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on every family in the land. However, I suggest that we all take a minute to think about the dynamics of our own circle. Too many people think that this epidemic of loneliness is someone else’s problem. They read these surveys and hear the accounts of children sitting in the rooms subsisting on Pot Noodles and think that it must be happening somewhere else.
Then they tut at the newspaper stories of elderly people left neglected in sub-standard care homes. Somehow they never connect this with their own aged parents, who sit there alone in their bungalows night after night watching soap operas and shedding a silent tear.
Loneliness is not someone else’s problem. It is everyone’s problem. We should all realise that and take action before it’s too late. Those children sitting upstairs with only their television, games console and Childline to talk to are going to grow up into maladjusted adults with no idea of how to form meaningful and lasting relationships.
Is this the legacy we really want for the next generation? If we don’t take the time to engage with our own children now, how will they learn how to engage with us?
If we think this country has a problem with loneliness now, just wait until we get old ourselves.