Coming up for air?

The impacts of COVID on social isolation and loneliness

Feeling asphyxiated after two months in lockdown, I recently reopened George Orwell’s 1939 classic Coming up for Air.

It describes 45-year-old George Bowling trapped in a small London house; a meaningless job; disconnected from his friends, wife and children (when awake), his world filled with ‘dead minds, stopped inside … moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.’

There are echoes of this recurring, ghostly suffocation in the present moment; the monotonous and isolating routine of lockdown, the frustration about when (if ever) it will properly be over, and the anxiety about what the ‘new normal’ will look like. Of many potential changes – e.g. digital communication, teleworking, flexible/inequitable family lives, commuting, urban design, environment – a prescient concern is whether we will interact differently in future, and if that will make us lonelier.

Loneliness is the gap between desired and available companionship and emotional support, linked to health problems such as early mortalityincreased cardio-vascular disease, and poor mental health and depression, and has been a widely reported personal stressor for Australians during COVID. Such increased loneliness is unsurprising until we ask ourselves: why hasn’t the boom in videoconferencing compensated for the loss of physical contact? Furthermore, what about the future? Has an enforced shift from physical to digital interaction permanently changed the way we connect hereon?

Together with Dr Marlee Bower from the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre, I have been researching the impacts of COVID on social isolation and loneliness. We have utilised national online survey data collected across 2020-21 to examine the self-reported, qualitative experiences of Australians transitioning in and out of lockdown. We found many reports of increased disconnection during lockdown, including comments that “the sense of loneliness has never been stronger” and that interactions were “just not the same.” In addition to craving physical connection: “[Zoom] always seems so forced”, there was ongoing anxiety about health and social interaction: “I don’t want to make anyone sick”; social avoidance from “feeling drained and exhausted” from care duties and home-schooling; and feelings of lost connection from suspended physical, recreational and voluntary activities (e.g. music gigs, martial arts, knitting nights, dancing, travel).

Potentially more concerning were findings that this sense of interactive disruption continued months after lockdown was lifted: “Everyone became withdrawn ... no one wants to hang out anymore.” Some traced this to ongoing restrictions on physical group activities: “no pool swimming”; “limited to exercising in pairs.” Younger people were particularly disrupted by key life events halting, such as university: “from the second week … everything was moved online,”; relocating for work “still in the process of making friends … a sense of stalling,”; moving back home “I feel like an outsider”; or finding new romantic partners “meeting someone feels pretty impossible this year.” Travel disruptions also impacted networks: “with international travel shut down, I'm not seeing anyone.

Worryingly, many respondents reported an increased sense of social apathy and fatigue well after lockdown had ended: “I began to become very unhappy and unmotivated”; “face to face … feels tiring. It's changed”; “[there’s] greater sense of isolation, wanting to be alone … [and] feeling lost, bored, uninterested and tired”; “Covid has given me licence to withdraw into myself … I don't want to come back out.” This withdrawal was matched by reports of ‘shrinking networks’ and social circles undergoing consolidation and intensification: “better with the close few”; “more time with close friends. Less time with ‘acquaintances.’” Some noted how videoconferencing restricted group size and interaction: “because socialising was more about conversation [not] drinking or doing activities as a group.” Others reported feeling excluded from participation from such things as “pre-existing health conditions, it’s not worth the risk”; lacking prior social networks: “far easier for people to ignore and forget about me when we don’t see each other in person”; and lacking digital networking literacy: “I'm sick of bad FaceTimes and Skypes. I'm a hard copy person and like the real thing.”

This is not to say that digital connections haven’t been helpful. Videoconferencing enabled connections otherwise impossible during lockdown, and sometimes strengthened relationships: “It's made me connect with people more online and purposefully ask them how they are really doing.” Others tried new virtual activities that supported and built social connections: “we are now playing [online] Dungeons and Dragons … it’s really fun.” And some reported clear benefits, including assistance with disabilities and feeling “normal on Zoom” and more time with family from working from home: “my partner and I spend quality time together nearly every day in person.” It also expanded the capacity to connect with more distant friends and relatives, though one respondent warned that for distant online-only relations “the social capital is being drawn down from and isn’t replenishing. If the pandemic goes on long enough these groups/relationships may break.

Our findings show that physical and digital interactions are different qualia, not interchangeable substitutes. They work best as complements, with previous research showing digital communication is useful for interactive (rather than passive/lurking) purposes to help shore up existing (mostly physical) networks of close friends and family. And yet, several factors are tipping the balance towards ever-more digital interaction, including teleworking and lifestyle (i.e. sea change) or market considerations (i.e. cheaper regional rent, companies reducing office overheads); huge increases not only in videoconferencing, but social media usage and online gaming as well; and, as our findings suggest, a potential emerging ‘culture of loneliness’ whereby people avoid the inconvenience and diffidence, or simply lose the habit, of socialising physically.

We must support research now into how physical and digital worlds interface, before we sleepwalk into a future where daily contact becomes primarily digital. Sleepwalking is easy in extraordinary times, as Orwell’s Bowling notes in reflecting on his generation’s transition into global capitalism: “They lived at the end of an epoch … and they didn’t know it. They thought it was eternity. You couldn’t blame them. That was what it felt like.”  We must remember that digital interaction is a tool to help us find new connections and keep old ones, not an inevitable substitute for physical connections.

We should take a very big breath when we come out of lockdown, and then take a critical and conscious step out of our comfort zones back into the world beyond our screens. We should imagine a life that combines the best of both spaces, rather than accept the constraints of a digital reality that we adapted to deal with a pandemic whose suffocating effects may be with us for some time.

Roger Patulny is an Associate Professor with the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at UOW.

Follow him on Twitter @rpatulny