Despite widespread access to social media and video conferencing technology, many people have experienced increased loneliness during Covid lockdowns and continue to do so.
In 2020-21, we interviewed over 2,000 people about their experiences during and after lockdown for a study published today in the Australian Journal of Social Issues. Participants came from all states and territories, ages 18 to 88. About two thirds were women.
We talked in detail about how the respondents survived the quarantine. Thanks to this, we got an idea of the feeling of loneliness of people in the context of the use of digital media.
While many struggled, the consequences were not felt equally by all.
Who was lonely and remained lonely after self-isolation?
“ Back to recommendation stories
The pandemic has opened up new “inequalities” in loneliness, creating communication barriers for several types of people. These difficulties remained even after the lockdown ended as they had higher levels of loneliness months later.
For example, 49% of men and 47% of women agreed that they were single “at least for a while” (at least 1-2 days per week) during lockdown. But within months of the lockdown, that figure dropped to 40% of men and 42% of women, leading to a gendered “loneliness gap.”
Men bounce back faster when activities such as sports and recreation are resumed. This makes sense when you consider that men are more likely to base friendships on such pursuits than women.
We also found people with disabilities, people who are single (not in a relationship), people on low incomes, and those without strong pre-Covid social connections who had higher levels of loneliness during self-isolation — and
Why were they lonely?
Loneliness has been widespread among young people who have experienced Covid-induced isolation. They missed the opportunity to make friends (for example, go to university), go abroad or get a job for the first time. Such breaks can correct themselves when normal routine work resumes.
A potentially bigger issue is the reduction of social media during the lockdown. Friendship “shrinking” has been reported, where people preferred to connect online with those they were already close with at the expense of more distant and varied friendships.
One respondent noted:
I spend more time with close friends. Less time with “acquaintances”. More time with trusted colleagues. Less time with “time wasters”.
The problem is that vast networks take time to rebuild, which likely contributes to more lingering “social” loneliness. It can also help spread intolerance towards those more distant types of people we are culling, studies of Covid-induced loneliness in rural communities in New South Wales have shown.
It was not easy for those who turned out to be “trimmed”. These people, many of whom were men, became even lonelier when they realized that most of their existing friendships were not as close as they thought.
Many people have felt that they and others have lost social interaction habits during Covid, making it difficult or impossible.
One middle-aged man said:
It feels like life and society is forever changed even after much of the pandemic is over. […] You can make plans and act on them, but they can (and usually do) collapse in the blink of an eye.
These lost habits can take a long time to recover.
Some people made the most of what they had
Covid has exposed gaps in our digital readiness. Those who already had extensive or active online networks described an easier transition to blocking. One older respondent noted that she:
has had many online relationships around the world for decades. It made it easier for me to go online.
This reflects research findings that online interactions that maintain existing connections and encourage new ones can help reduce loneliness.
Some people with disabilities noted the digital interaction. As one person said:
I am an equal on Zoom.
This is consistent with studies finding a positive effect of video conferencing on loneliness in frail older adults.
Zoom failed to fill the gap
However, despite some positive experience, our work has shown that digital contact in general is not a sufficient substitute for lost physical contact and social needs.
As one female respondent said:
Online alternatives help a lot, but it’s not the same and it’s not enough.
Some lacked digital literacy and described the difficult transition to video conferencing:
I hate talking because I type slowly. I hate Skype partly because I hate seeing myself on screen and I hate it when other people see me.
The need to “go digital” exacerbated pre-existing anxieties for some, while others felt left out:
It was an isolating experience because I constantly hear others always stay connected through these methods.
Many people simply lacked the “physicality” of face-to-face communication; the “atmosphere” of public places, the opportunity to “dress up”, physical closeness and contact.
Communication in the post-COVID world
However, many have given up on the ease of digital communication versus the “difficult” face-to-face meetings, even after the lockdown was lifted. One middle-aged woman said that real-life communication now feels “tedious.”
This is troubling because it points to the seductive power of digital communication as a “substitute” for physical interaction.
Research shows that online interaction can increase loneliness if it does not support (often more meaningful) existing relationships, but instead “crowds out” them with less meaningful or superficial digital interactions.
The Internet can improve the lives of those who cannot physically interact due to remoteness or physical incapacity. But if the convenience of digital communication crowds out regular (often better) interaction, it can exacerbate isolation and loneliness.
With lockdowns receding, we need to look for ways to reconnect physically with friends, rather than relying more and more on digital tools to bridge the loneliness divide.
(This PTI was syndicated through The Conversation)