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Gerine Lodder on loneliness among adolescents

14 March 2018
Gerine Lodder, photo by Rita Smaniotto
Gerine Lodder, photo by Rita Smaniotto

Gerine Lodder has been working in what is possibly the nicest office in the Gadourek Building for nearly two and a half years. Her research revolves around the social health of children and adolescents and she has done a lot of research into loneliness among adolescents. 'I once compared loneliness with hunger: whereas hunger is a signal that your body needs food, loneliness is in fact a signal from your body, telling you that you need to connect. '

Text: Fardau Bamberger / Communication

Innovative research

Gerine’s research revolves around the social health of children and adolescents. ‘Social relationships have always intrigued me; I have done a lot of research into loneliness among adolescents. As well as being interesting, it’s also a good field to work in. Research into loneliness among young people is scarce, so your work is usually innovative by definition.’ This much is obvious. She is one of the only experts on loneliness in the world, a fact that secured her an invitation for TEDx Groningen. She also features regularly in the media, including in the television talk show Jacobine op Zondag. ‘Why is there so little research into this phenomenon? I think it’s largely pragmatic; if your colleagues and supervisors aren’t interested in the subject, it’s difficult to get started. On the other hand, we can all identify with the theme loneliness. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t immediately register as a subject worthy of research, although it certainly is.’

In and outside academia

Most of the direct contact with her target group takes place ‘in the wild’. For practical reasons, this doesn’t happen very often as part of the research. ‘I ask a whole group, a school class for example, to fill in a questionnaire to help me find out who is being bullied or who is lonely. I use sociometrics, a method for measuring social relationships. One of the questions might be: “Who is being bullied in your class?”, so if victims find it difficult to admit it, I’ll find out through their classmates.’ Gerine gives lectures and workshops, where she speaks to professionals, such as local counsellors, politicians and healthcare workers. She also advises parties working on interventions for adolescents outside the academic setting. ‘It’s essential to know exactly what you’re doing before you offer an intervention to adolescents. You must be able to deliver the help you’re offering, otherwise it could have the opposite effect. The preparations for an intervention take time and careful investigation, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the future.’

Comparing loneliness with hunger

‘To me, physical, mental and social health are all equally important. I hope that more researchers will focus on the social health aspect in the future. It would be great to work on this issue with a group of researchers; it’s sorely needed. I once compared loneliness with hunger: whereas hunger is a signal that your body needs food, loneliness is in fact a signal from your body, telling you that you need to connect. Around 3 to 10 percent of adolescents are chronically lonely, which is a problem. What do we consider important for our children's development? Their mental health, physical health, and how they function in society. Loneliness affects all three. I want to make it normal to ask an adolescent about his or her social health, and normal to take their answer seriously. You probably won’t get there simply by asking your nephew about his social life, but the more we ask, and the more people who ask the question either in a professional or a social capacity, the sooner we’ll notice when something is wrong.’

Discussions under a tree

Sitting at her desk, Lodder looks out on the former Hortus Botanicus Garden, which is now the pretty courtyard garden of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. It’s more than fair to say that Gerine has definitely found her niche, yet surprisingly enough, research wasn’t her planned career path. ‘It just sort of happened,’ she laughs. ‘I wasn’t a particularly good Bachelor's student; my marks were okay, but I certainly didn't attend all the lectures. I studied Pedagogy in Nijmegen and had never even heard of a Research Master’s programme. My thesis supervisor told me about it while I was doing my clinical Master's and everything suddenly fell into place. I’d always had this romantic image of student life: holding intense discussions with groups of students, sitting on the lawn under a tree. That sort of thing. I didn't actually experience this until the Research Master's and it was so inspiring. From that moment on, research became my calling’. After unexpectedly receiving funding for a PhD project, Gerine studied for a PhD in Nijmegen, and has now been appointed as a post-doc researcher in Groningen. ‘To be quite honest, I don't think I'd be capable of anything else. Sometimes, when I’m working hard, I suddenly realise how incredible it is to get paid for something I enjoy so much: making discoveries, working things out. It never ceases to amaze me. If I were offered three times as much to do another job, I’d still choose this one.’

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Last modified:05 December 2019 12.43 p.m.
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