How digital can help those experiencing loneliness

18 Jun 2020 |Written by Peter Nuckley


In this new socially distanced world, FutureDotNow and Good Things Foundation are coordinating action through a new initiative called DevicesDotNow, targeting digitally excluded households without access to the internet.

For the past 3 months (or 3 years if we are going by how long lockdown has felt), Good Things Foundation has been working with FutureDotNow to explore ways to support people who are most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis, through providing free devices and connectivity.

On Monday as part of Loneliness Awareness Week, we launched our #4Faces4Devices challenge to help create awareness of the role technology can play in combatting loneliness and to raise money to provide the most vulnerable people with phones and other devices.

We recently released our DevicesDotNow Interim Impact Report which looks back on everything the initiative has achieved so far and tells the stories of a few people that have received devices. A couple of us even gave evidence in a parliamentary select committee about these things (when I say ‘us’… I mean clever people like Helen Milner, Liz Williams and Nicola Wallace-Dean… I didn’t do anything).

People are improving their finances, progressing onto further learning or even managing their health online. All amazing, but I’m drawn to the loneliness stuff. There’s something deeply human about being lonely - something many of us have felt even in the most crowded rooms. I’ve been lonely, but never have I been cut off from society! Never has something happened where I don’t see another human’s face for weeks on end. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like.

 

Kathalingham, 41, West London

“I feel happy that I have people to connect to. I was very scared of the pandemic but now I can keep myself safe by following the government guidance.”

Before lockdown, organisations that underpin the Online Centres Network were at the heart of communities. They were places where people recognised themselves, felt at home and most importantly felt safe. Yes, digital skills are important but so is a cup of tea, a chat to a friendly face and support from others who understand your experiences. People often attended just for the conversation as it was the only chance they had to speak to another person all week. The physical place was very special.

But here we are in the midst of all this fear and uncertainty and there are people for whom no contact is a reality. This was an issue well before the start of the pandemic for many but it’s being brought into focus now.

There is so much we can do to help those experiencing loneliness and social isolation through more funding for more devices. We can help our community leaders support those people to see faces and hear voices that they haven’t seen or heard in a long time.

 

Two ways that digital can help with loneliness:

1. Connection to those who are suddenly cut off from others

Robert was a volunteer at a local organisation but when COVID-19 hit his health took a turn for the worse, he was required to isolate. For Robert, he had relied on the computers and internet at the organisation to not just carry out everyday tasks such as job searches, but the hub was a place of social connection for him. Now at home with no way of contacting people online, he had become lonely.

By receiving a device, he was able to contact his friends and family again via social media. This helped him to feel connected, improve his mental well being and even forge new connections with people. Robert says: "I'm loving my tablet. I'm now able to keep in touch with family and friends. Thanks for your help.”

2. Providing connection for those who didn’t have it to begin with

Mable hadn’t seen her daughter for 25 years as she had moved to Australia. Mable is 91 and was advised by the government to shield so was cut off from the outside world. But then, with a bit of free kit and a friendly face to help her learn a new skill and now she is talking to her daughter again, ‘feeling much better’ and has even met her grandson (online of course!).

 

Some heroes don’t wear capes, but they do run knit-and-natter sessions

Community organisations such as those in the Online Centres Network have had to adapt quickly to continue to support people in their community. They have been amazing in setting up Zoom classes, quizzes, ‘knit and natter sessions’ and more so that people remain in contact. Every time I talk to someone at these community organisations I feel guilty. Guilty that I’m not doing enough, guilty that I moaned yesterday because my wifi was a bit hit-n-miss and guilty that I haven’t put my head above the parapet and said “this is wrong” - to so many things. To make matters worse, the wonderful people who work at community organisations thank me! THANK ME?! Because I moved their name from one spreadsheet to another and they got some devices delivered.

You know…Just like that time Batman fought off the Joker and saved Gotham, only to take a moment and make sure he thanked Amazon for delivering his utility belt! (Please read this sarcastically...).

Thank you to all of you who are working at community organisations during this time. Thank you for keeping people together, for providing those places (physical or virtual) for support and refuge. Thank YOU.

 

Highlighting what we already know

There are some motivational barriers to people getting online. Once there is a cost to something, many people will go without. Imagine if you have to make a choice between food or wifi, you choose food! If this happens on a daily basis you might lose confidence, might turn inward, might become lonely. Suddenly a pandemic hits and even if you wanted to open yourself back up to people you can’t. This and a thousand other scenarios are ways in which loneliness can thrive.

It looks as though a simple (it hasn’t been that simple!) recipe of recognising those who might need help, a bit of kit and a friendly face can start to make a world of difference to some people.

These are just some of my rambling thoughts. Keep an eye out for more stories and more analysis from us (again, I should mention that by ‘us’ I mean the clever people in the office  -  not me).

If you’d like to support the DevicesDotNow initiative and help vulnerable people to reconnect with their loved ones, visit our Crowdfunder page here.