What COVID-19 is teaching us about why technology can’t fix loneliness

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Let’s be clear. Technology has many benefits. Communication technology has been a great enabler of, well, communication in this current health crisis. But if we think we can simply give an iPad to someone, and they will no longer feel socially isolated we are sorely mistaken.

And here’s why.

Social isolation is intrinsically linked with loneliness, both experiences highly complex in nature; objective social isolation (or lack of social connectedness and engagement); perceived social isolation (the sense of feeling disconnected) and the state of loneliness.

Researchers agree that loneliness is a discrepancy between an individual’s preferred and actual state of mind, which in turn leads to a negative feeling of being alone and the distress of feeling socially isolated. This is a lived experience and highly individual. It is not simply about the number of contacts experienced each day for example. The revered work from Cacioppo, the master of loneliness, underscored the difference between the experience of feeling lonely which does not necessarily equate with being alone, nor does being alone mean feeling alone. You have probably heard the familiar reference to the idea that you can be lonely in a crowd. Although often quoted it succinctly captures the highly individual nature of the experience.

Building then, on the differences in the experience of loneliness, health intervention studies have often focused on stopping or even preventing the negative feelings that go with loneliness and social isolation. These interventions have seen a keen interest in the correlation between perceived social isolation, loneliness, and health with many suggesting that the negative consequences of loneliness are so great as to equal the negative effects of smoking and cardiovascular disease. Research also suggests that the presence of loneliness can also create a negative experience and subsequent barrier to trying to learn new skills such as technology, which in turn might explain why some older people who are isolated and lonely, might struggle with it.

Many researched activities to help prevent or alleviate loneliness typically fall into four main areas: increase social contact, be more active physically, helping others and technology.

More social contact please?

Or less?

It seems there is no consensus here. Studies remain inconclusive about the positive health impact of social contact on alleviating loneliness. In fact, right now, social contact is probably the worst thing we can do for our health.

But should we be as worried as we are about declining social contact ? Particularly in this current health crisis.

Yes and No.

If social contact is important to you and it has been a part of your life previously then yes, every effort should be made to keep that going.

Remember that loneliness is both highly complex and completely individual.

To illustrate this, recent research has identified three types of loneliness; relational loneliness, intimate loneliness, and situational loneliness. So, improving social contact where you are situationally lonely might be just what you need. But what if your life was never full of social contact and you were happy about that? Being forced to start social contact could make you feel worse and possibly even cause you to develop situational loneliness? Forcing someone to join a group or suddenly be on the receiving end of well-meaning contacts can be both disrespectful and more damaging to the recipient’s mental health than was intended.

Ok. So, what about being more active?

There is no shortage of studies suggesting that getting active improves our mental health. Physical activity has been found to be a protective factor against negative mental health and poor health behaviours. This in turn, suggesting that the lack of physical activity may contribute to a high negative health risk associated with loneliness.

On the other hand, some follow up studies have shown that the long-term positive effects of the physical activity on mental health once it has stopped shows a decline in effectiveness over just a few short months. It could be suggested therefore that it is not the activity itself but rather the capacity for self-regulation to undertake the physical regime that has the greatest impact. This along with being part of a group as well as the fact of being “researched” means the results might not be as clearly evident as suggested from the study. Interestingly, animal research has also shown that social isolation dampens the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain implying that health behaviours may better serve their purpose or have greater effect among those who feel socially connected than those who feel lonely.

So, what about helping others to help ourselves?

Helping others and general volunteerism has been intrinsically linked to living a life with meaning and purpose.

Now of course, this meaning and purpose is different for many, but significant findings suggest the this has long been a protective health barrier. Frankl the prominent Austrian neurologist who personally experienced the Auschwitz concentration camps, noted that prisoners who found purpose were far more resilient and likely to survive then those who did not. “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances but only by lack of meaning and purpose” he noted and could be a timely reminder of how some may develop the grit and resilience to ward off the negative consequences of social isolation and loneliness.

So, let’s turn to the fourth intervention activity to alleviate loneliness - that of technology.

We know that barriers to technology use are many. The cost of set up and maintenance, the cost of the item itself, the inability to make the technology work and training programs that are patronising, too technically fast and not repeatable, all combine to make technology adoption difficult .

Technology therefore may play a role in staying connected, but it might not deliver those deep and meaningful relationships that are important. Eric J. Moody’s peer reviewed article on Internet Use and Its Relationship to Loneliness found that low levels of social and emotional loneliness were linked to high degrees of face-to-face networks of friends, while high Internet use was associated with high emotional loneliness. This supports recent research that has found that the Internet can decrease social well-being, even though it is often used as a communication tool. In my recent PhD Doctorate study on Communication Technology and Loneliness that was ground-breaking in its link to the process of successful ageing, also revealed that engaging in technology can also bring on loneliness once the interaction such as that with a video call has ended.

“When the Skype call ended, all I could hear was the clock ticking. As they [sic family] continued in the hustle and bustle of family life, I had just me, it made me feel lonelier than before. The quiet was so loud”

And of course, not everyone is going to be “fixed” by iPad and Skype. Connecting with others via technology can all too easily become the mis-guided brainchild of cash-strapped government departments who roll out huge operationally efficient “Get Connected” programs and report that it “works” in getting older people on-line. It is hard to argue with data that says a defined number of people took part in the training, but where the data falls down is in its crooked assumption that therefore those people are now engaged on-line. With recent survey data gathered from participants independent of their program, revealing that the training was patronising, too complicated and not relevant to personal requirements, we need to look beyond simple course sign-ups as measures of success.

There are of course a few who reported the training benefited them and they continued with the functions they had been shown. However, this cookie cutter approach needs to be viewed carefully and ensure that it doesn’t simply become an operationally efficient and cheap way to absolve the guilt we feel about our isolated and lonely older population.

What is clear is that staying connected with those who already have relationships in the off-line world in a way that is about sharing basic information will satisfy a small need.

Building and growing relationships with technology remains highly doubtful and starting new relationships that are deep enough to create a protective barrier against the deleterious consequences of loneliness, highly unlikely.

In this way, the current COVID-19 health crisis is allowing us to witness the lived experience of our older population. Could this current climate finally break down the inherent societal ageism that abounds around technology and older people? Even you might have been the most tech-savvy user at work in say, excel, but have now had your support network ripped away. You too are finding yourself momentarily having to learn new tech skills and video conference tools. You are coming to terms with the experience that you are not the tech “power-users” you thought you were once the IT department down the corridor has removed its face to face support. And perhaps you too are finding that technology can’t simply “fix” the highly complex and personal construct of loneliness.

Perhaps at last the stereotypical image of an older person struggling with IT is finally shown what it really is. Ageism of the worst kind. Because it exists as a joke and simply perpetuates our unconscious bias does not make it acceptable.

It is perhaps the assumption that from the transactional nature of communication technology that it can replace that need for deeper human connection. For some it might alleviate some of the negative experiences of feeling lonely. But it is not the only answer.

It is clear therefore that technology can’t fix loneliness for everyone. For some it could become a reminder of what they don’t have and what they are missing out on. For others it could be just the tonic that the doctor ordered. In this way we must also identify those who would benefit most from technology and those whose mental health might even decline from it.

The COVID-19 health crisis has also created a perfect participatory paradigm. We get to live first-hand what many of our older population experience every day.

So, let’s hope that when this is all over, we take with us the memory of struggling with the barriers to technology usage. It’s a shared experience, not one about being old as the media might have us believe. But instead about facing and overcoming barriers to stay connected. Let’s ensure that even though we can get people set up with a device to communicate, that it doesn’t start or stop there. Training and support need to be relevant and on-going. And it also needs to start well before anyone gets their hands on a device.

Creating a positive and supportive environment based on the skills of resilience and self-worth are just as important. And only when all that is in place should we return to the debate on the true relationship between technology and its potential positive impact on reducing loneliness.

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