During the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have tried to stay in touch with loved ones and others using technologies like Zoom, or by calling people on our mobile phones.
But for one group – those 60 and older – using these practices in isolation seemed to backfire, leaving them feeling lonely, according to a recent study from the University of British Columbia in Canada and Lancaster University in the UK. It was published in Frontiers in Sociology.
The study of more than 5,000 older adults found that people 60 and older who relied on phone and online contact only to stay close to others felt lonely during the pandemic.
By contrast, those who maintained face-to-face contact with others and used virtual communication only as a complement to real-world forms of communication experienced enhanced well-being.
The study authors emphasized that their findings only found an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship, between virtual connectivity and increased loneliness. They emphasized that more research is necessary to confirm their findings.
However, study co-author Yang Hu of Lancaster University told the BBC: “Virtual contact alone does not benefit the mental health of older adults.”
Most of the study participants were from the United Kingdom, although nearly a fifth were in the United States. The study noted that for older people in both countries, “the increase in loneliness after the outbreak was greater for older people who reported more contact default.”
It’s possible that people who feel isolated and lonely are simply more likely to make virtual connections more often, the researchers said. However, he also described the study’s findings as “very robust” and said it “crosses very different contexts in the UK and the US”.
Commenting on the findings of the study, Carolyn Abrahams, director of philanthropy at Age UK, told The Guardian:
“We know that a virtual environment can exacerbate feelings of not actually being with your loved ones in person.”
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