A study by Oxford BRC researchers has looked at the role digital technology can play in reducing social, physical and psychological risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and addressing the short- and long-term impacts of social isolation and lockdown loneliness.
Their paper, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, suggests that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people who are more prone to lockdown loneliness should be provided with access to digital technology so that they can connect socially with their loved ones and others.
This technology might include applications designed to address mental health issues or to specifically to tackle isolation during epidemics and emergencies.
The study, which also involved the Public Health Agency of Northern Ireland, describes lockdown loneliness and the burden it has had during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as identifying the characteristics of those people who are more likely to be affected by it and the factors that might increase the risk of loneliness.
Statistics from June 2020 show that lockdown loneliness affected some 7.4 million adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chronic loneliness remained at similar levels to the pre-lockdown period – around 2.6 million adults – although 80% of long-term lonely people were affected by lockdown loneliness during the pandemic.
Recent studies have shown that loneliness during the pandemic is higher in adults who are single and/or living alone, as well as those who are in poor health. Lockdown loneliness has increased among young people and the elderly, while the rates of loneliness for people of black, Asian and minority ethnic origin have been higher than among white British people.
“We launched this study as it became apparent that loneliness during lockdown was emerging as an important public health issue that needed to be tackled. Loneliness is associated with increased morbidity and mortality,” said Dr Sarwar Shah, lead author of the paper.
“Digital technology can play an important role in helping those disadvantaged and vulnerable people who are most prone to lockdown loneliness to make social connections. We believe providing them with the means to make these connections with their loved ones of service providers could reduce the loneliness that results from social distancing and lockdowns during the COVID-19 crisis.”
Dr Vasiliki Kiparoglou, the Oxford BRC’s Chief Operating Officer and another author on the paper, added: “Important issues need to be addressed to make this approach work, such as access to and knowledge of digital technology tools, as well as ensuring that key stakeholders, such as family and friends, social care providers, clinicians and health allied professionals, are fully engaged.”