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Almost half of young people feel more comfortable using social media and messaging apps to talk to strangers than doing so face-to-face.

While more than two-thirds of over 55s are happy to speak to someone they don’t know in person, the rise of smartphones means 18- to 24-year-olds can avoid proper conversations, research has found.

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The study of more than 2,000 people by Cancer Research warns that the younger generation, known as millennials, run the risk of social isolation, following research linking social media use to unhappiness.

Recent years have seen a transformation in how mobile phones are used, with fewer people picking them up to making calls, preferring to use social media such as Facebook or apps such as WhatsApp. Dr Rebecca Beeken, a behavioural scientist at the University of Leeds, said: ‘This research shows an increasing generational divide between how millennials and baby boomers prefer to communicate.

‘While it is no surprise that young people are embracing new ways to chat, it is important they don’t lose the art of talking to the people around them. Social isolation can be associated with poor health, and we know social support is important for adopting healthy lifestyle changes. These changes can play an important role in helping to prevent cancer.’

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The study, produced for World Cancer Day on February 4, also found that more than a quarter of millennials had never spoken to someone they did not know on public transport – compared to just 5 percent of over-55s – as nearly half said they preferred to listen to music on their headphones.

– VICTORIA ALLEN SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT/ DAILY MAIL