The COVID-19 pandemic triggered numerous events in everyone. One of these is loneliness, especially among younger people. And according to a study, technology can be used to address loneliness while complying with health protocols.
The study that included technology as a tool to address loneliness was conducted by the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Manchester. Technology-based interventions could be more relevant in addressing loneliness among younger people, particularly in this pandemic. Researchers found that technology could be as effective as in-person interventions. Its application could even improve offline relationships and create new ones. They published their findings in the journal Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
Mental Health Situation in the US Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic
The pandemic stirred mental health problems in millions of people worldwide: from the consequences of job loss to feelings of uncertainty. Until an effective vaccine is made available commercially, people have to endure difficulties caused by COVID-19. But not everyone is ready with the onslaught of negative thoughts and emotions. Some are at a higher risk of substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency, many US adults reported elevated adverse mental health conditions linked to COVID-19, between June 24 and 30, 2020. About 40.9% of them reported struggles with mental health and substance use. Around 30.9% reported anxiety or depressive symptoms, 26.3% reported trauma or stressor-related disorder symptoms, 13.3% reported increased or initiated substance use, and 10.7% reported serious consideration of suicide among 5,412 surveyed adults.
At least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom was reported by 74.9% of participants aged 18 to 24 years, and by 51.9% of participants aged 25 to 44 years. An estimated 54% of essential workers, 66.6% of unpaid caregivers of adults, 72.7% of those who reported being treated for anxiety, 68.8% of those being treated for depression, and 88% of those being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder experienced the same issue.
Among males, 24.7% reported anxiety disorder symptoms, 24.8% reported depressive disorder symptoms, 30.4% reported anxiety or depressive symptoms, and 27.9% reported COVID-19-related trauma or stressor-related disorder symptoms. About 14.4% started or had increased substance use, 12.6% seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, and 40.5% had at least one adverse mental health symptom.
Among females, 26.3% reported anxiety disorder symptoms, 23.9% reported depressive disorder symptoms, 31.5% reported anxiety or depressive symptoms, and 24.7% reported COVID-19-related trauma or stressor-related disorder symptoms. About 12.2% started or had increased substance use, 8.9% seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, and 41.4% had at least one adverse mental health symptom.
The survey indicated the need for increased intervention and prevention of mental health symptoms linked to COVID-19.
Technology for Addressing Loneliness
Social distancing is an important part of health protocols to control the spread of COVID-19. However, it protects people from the disease in exchange for loneliness. This is particularly adverse in people who live alone. Being unable to make physical contact with others, lots of individuals are at risk of social isolation. This risk is rising across all ages and unlikely to wane until a vaccine is made available.
"If used the right way, technology has the promise to prevent us from becoming a lonely culture during the pandemic, especially for teens and young adults — a generation at greatest risk of falling further into a culture of loneliness," wrote Dr. Danielle Ramo, a clinical psychologist and senior director of research at Hopelab, quoted US magazine Psychology Today.
Dr. Ramo highlighted technology as a potential solution for loneliness based on a meta-analysis published in May 2020. The published paper indicated analyses of 39 studies that sought interventions for youth loneliness. The analyses were performed on 14 single-group studies and 25 randomized controlled trials published between 1980 and 2019. The studies measured loneliness as an outcome among young people aged 25 and younger.
Out of 14 single-group studies, three studies focused on social skills, one focused on social and emotional skills, three focused on increased social interaction, four focused on enhanced social support, two focused on psychological therapies, and one focused on social identity and acceptance. Out of 14 studies, four applied a technology-based delivery system and 10 applied an in-person approach.
Out of 25 trials, five focused on social skills, seven focused on social and emotional support, four focused on enhanced social support, eight focused on psychological therapy, and two focused on learning a new hobby. Out of these trials, three applied a technology-based delivery system, and 22 applied in-person interventions.
Overall, all interventions in single-group studies and controlled trials showed a significant effect in reducing youth loneliness. But only limited evidence suggested one intervention type was better than another. The success of in-person interventions in those studies and trials were not significantly better than technology-based approaches. Researchers concluded that both intervention types could resolve youth loneliness and should be supported by policymakers.
Dr. Ramo added that in a 2017 review, technology-based interventions were found capable of lowering loneliness. Although the internet has been attributed to the mental health condition, it could enhance relationships if utilized appropriately. In this pandemic, the proper use of technologies to communicate with others could alleviate loneliness among people.
One of the best applications of technology is fostering current relationships using video or voice communications. Even distance apart, friends and relatives can make weekly video calls. They can also plan for remote house parties, wherein each individual enjoys the company of their circle while drinking or eating. This way, the effects of the lack of physical contact can be mitigated.
Another application is to forge new relationships. A person does not have to jump to romance or to immediately trust someone. Conversing to someone else online can allow sharing of experiences throughout the day. No need to spill secrets to a random stranger. Just forge a new connection and enjoy the benefits.
Health protocols for COVID-19 prioritize physical distancing, not social distancing. With numerous social media platforms today, anyone can have a chance to socialize without risking themselves to the disease.