Can digital reduce the impact of social distancing on loneliness?

30 Apr 2020

Social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have brought social connectedness into sharp focus. We are witnessing a steep increase in people connecting via digital means - but to what extent can this alleviate loneliness? Social distancing also exposes the higher risk faced by those who lack basic digital literacy; of both increased loneliness and exclusion from vital activities (e.g. banking).

Our research for Good Things Foundation* suggests that digital can be used to create new relationships, maintain or strengthen existing ones, find support, and pursue interests. However, it also reminds us that loneliness is a complex, multifaceted experience affecting all age groups. The people we spoke to agreed that digital can only offer a partial solution – struggling to recreate that ‘personal touch’ that comes from face-to-face contact. Ideally, digital works best as a tool to augment or facilitate real-world social interactions as part of a ‘blended’ solution.

The key facilitators of reducing loneliness, such as a sense of belonging, and a trusted and safe space, can to some extent be created digitally. For example, we have recently witnessed an increase in local neighbourhoods setting up online support groups. Our research found many examples of people using online tools to connect with others, such as through setting up a Facebook group to share photos and sharing local information through a WhatsApp group. Rhonda, a young mum, said how being digitally connected to others in her local area had helped her feel less isolated:

“I’m connected with other mums from my son’s school, we have a Facebook group, we keep each other informed about what is going is really useful as it can be isolating being on your own.”

As with face to face interactions, the role digital can play in reducing loneliness will be specific to each individual, dependent on their physical, emotional, practical, cultural and social needs, as well as their digital skill level and confidence. Those who participated in the research used digital to suit their day-to-day lives and preferences. This included social contact, finding new ways to enjoy hobbies, or as a communication tool where language was perceived as a barrier. Others became interested in digital through exploring their family history or learning a language.

Jon, a motorbike enthusiast, goes online to read magazines and look for spare parts on eBay. Dianne, a wildlife enthusiast explores Wikipedia and YouTube to find wildlife videos. Karen feels her health has improved through using the health app MyFitnessPal. Older people felt most comfortable getting online to reconnect or strengthen existing bonds with friends and family, using a range of apps, such as Facebook, Skype, email and WhatsApp. As Maria said:

“I can keep in touch with friends and family back overseas using WhatsApp...[digital has] made the world smaller.”

Our findings suggest that digital is unlikely to completely fill the social void or alleviate the experience of loneliness that some will feel in this current climate. Yet if used in ways that are suited to the individual, it can offer an opportunity to reduce it. This may happen through directly enabling social contact, or through supporting an interest or need which then improves wellbeing. This certainly underlines the urgency of closing the digital divide to benefit everyone.

*The research was carried out between November 2018 and January 2019; it involved a rapid evidence review and interviews with staff, volunteers and service users based at 12 Online Centres across England, including two case study centres in South Yorkshire which offered digital support to older people, refugees and those affected by mental ill health. The names of research participants have been changed.

Authors: Dr Sarah Alden and Dr Ilona Haslewood

Good Things Foundation is responding to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness Inquiry, drawing on the insights we have gathered from our network partners over the last few weeks. Through the DevicesDotNow campaign, we’ve been working with our community partners to deliver internet connected devices to people who are digitally excluded, and socially isolated as a result. Read about the positive impact the initiative is having for people like Firoozeh Sali and Ron Roper.