Young Britons are putting themselves at risk of loneliness by going without sleep, according to new research.
Normally associated with getting older, scientists have found a link between feelings of isolation and teenagers failing to get enough shut eye.
Those feeling lonely were 24 per cent more likely to feel tired and have difficulty concentrating during the day,
It is believed up to half of young people in the UK are sleep deprived, partly caused by using too much screen based technology.
The problem could even be deadly. Previous research has suggested the physical effects of loneliness are twice as bad for our health as obesity.
It weakens the body’s ability to fight viruses, pushing blood pressure into the danger zone for heart attacks or strokes and increasing the risk of early death.
The study published in Psychological Medicine said restlessness in lonely young people may be due to them feeling unsafe.
Overall 25 to 30 per cent of the 18 and 19 year old participants reported feeling lonely sometimes, with a further five per cent saying it was frequent.
The association with sleep quality remained even after symptoms of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, were taken into account.
Psychiatrist Professor Louise Arseneault, of King’s College London, said: “Diminished sleep quality is one of the many ways in which loneliness gets under the skin, and our findings underscore the importance of early therapeutic approaches to target the negative thoughts and perceptions that can make loneliness a vicious cycle.”
She added: “Many of the young people in our study are currently at university, living away from home for the first time, which can compound feelings of loneliness.
“It is therefore important they receive appropriate support to address these feelings before they turn into severe mental health problems.”
Researchers used data from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, a group of 2,232 twins born in England and Wales.
They measured loneliness by scoring responses to four questions: ‘How often do you feel that you lack companionship?’, ‘How often do you feel left out?’, ‘How often do you feel isolated from others?’ and ‘How often do you feel alone?’
They also measured sleep quality in the past month, including the time it takes to fall asleep, sleep duration and sleep disturbances, as well as daytime dysfunction such as staying awake during the day.
Loneliness was defined as a distressing feeling that people experience when they perceive their social relationships to be inadequate.
This is distinct from the concept of social isolation, as people can be socially isolated without feeling lonely, or feel lonely despite being surrounded by many people.
While the effect of being lonely is well documented among the elderly, it is a common problem for young people too.
The Mental Health Foundation reports loneliness is most frequent between the ages of 18 and 34. Despite this, little is known about health problems that are associated with loneliness among young adults, or the impact on sleep.
One of the proposed reasons for restless sleep in lonely individuals is the possibility they feel less safe.
The link between loneliness and poor sleep quality was almost 70 per cent stronger among those exposed to the most severe forms of violence such as sexual abuse, child maltreatment and violent bullying by family members or peers.
Previous research suggests loneliness is associated with changes in circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Physiological arousal resulting from this process may play a role in the disrupted sleep.
Added co author Timothy Matthews, a PhD student: “We also found past exposure to violence exacerbated the association between loneliness and poor sleep, which is consistent with the suggestion that sleep problems in lonely individuals are related to feeling unsafe.
“This makes sense as sleep is a state in which it is impossible to be vigilant for one’s safety, so feeling isolated from others could make it more difficult to sleep restfully, and even more so for individuals who have been exposed to violence in the past.
“It is therefore important to recognise loneliness may interact with pre existing vulnerabilities in some people, and these individuals should receive tailored support.”