Loneliness in the age of internet connection

Photo by Gabriel Porras

A recent study, co-authored by University of British Columbia (UBC) professor Yue Qian and Lancaster University lecturer Yang Hu, has revealed the importance of face-to-face interaction as well as the limitations of virtual communication when it comes to maintaining mental health among older adults (those aged 60 and above).

The study, which draws data from populations in the U.S. and U.K., shows that “frequent inter-household face-to-face contact” during the pandemic was associated with “better general mental well-being” and that those engaged more frequently in virtual contact were “more likely to feel lonely during the pandemic, particularly if their face-to-face contact was limited.”

Michael Coffey, 62, a senior member of the Coast Mental Health Clean Street Team in the same age demographic as those in Qian’s study, shares some of his thoughts on face-to-face contact.

“It’s not like some jobs where they say, ‘well, it’s working, but do it from home.’ Well you can’t really clean the sidewalks from home. So just being around people and being outside is, I think, healthy for all of us,” he says.

Virtual communications

Qian is a professor and researcher of Sociology at UBC with a research background spanning a range of topics including marriage, divisions of labour, migration and the role of family and work in shaping health and well-being. She says that there is a lot of research on the relationship between social interaction and mental health, research on the specific impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and social interaction of different population groups is still being researched.

“Prior research has shown that inter-household contact – that is, interactions with families and friends living in other households – shape people’s mental health. But we know less about how inter-household contact was associated with older adults’ mental health during a crisis setting such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Qian.

Among other things, Qian and Hu’s study focussed on what role virtual communication could play in bolstering mental health, either as an enhancement or a replacement for face-to-face contact. What they found is that while virtual communication is simply not enough on its own, it was helpful as a supplement to more direct face-to-face communication.

“We find that face-to-face (F2F) contact is essential in helping maintain older adults’ mental well-being. Virtual contact is not qualitatively equivalent,” says Qian. “Although we find that virtual contact on its own is not beneficial, it enhances older adults’ mental wellbeing when used in combination with F2F contact. The implication for the future of digitization and ageing: digitally replaced older support does not look promising for the future but a digitally enhanced/assisted one can be.”

For Qian, one of the factors to look at closely in the future is the level of accessibility that seniors have towards being able to fully engage with newer technology for the means of virtual communication.

“In preparing for the future, it is important to ensure that elderly people have equal access, affordance, knowledge, skills and even comfort level when it comes to the usage of digital tools,” says Qian. “It’s surprising that virtual contact is associated with greater loneliness and mental distress than no contact, but a wide array of research did document the digital burden, stress and reluctance experienced by some in the ageing population.”

Out and about

When asked about his thoughts on social media and virtual connectivity, Coffey says that he can relate somewhat to that technological disillusionment. Having gotten internet for the first time this February, he can imagine how his fellow senior peers might feel about a strict transition to virtual communication.

Dr. Yue Qian. | Photo courtesy of UBC

“I guess for young people, they’re used to virtual interaction, and it’s almost like a lateral move. Not so much with seniors. Seniors tend to isolate anyways – and people with mental health issues – and then this challenge drops on top of them. I could see some people just giving up on it,” he says.

However, Coffey’s mental health story has been one of stark improvement over the last year and a half. While for many people this timeframe has been a very difficult mental health period, for Coffey, it has coincided with a number of watershed mental health moments.

Having lived with undiagnosed mental health issues since an early age, Coffey was finally diagnosed in September of 2019 with major depressive disorder. The next three months would see a huge change in Coffey’s mental health due to a handful of different factors. In addition to being prescribed, successfully, with a mood stabilizer and other medicine and being fast-tracked to income disability assistance, Coffey also earned a position with COAST Mental Health’s Clean Street Team.

“Coast putting me to work was huge. I was an earner for many, many years. That was the only thing pretty much that kept me functional, was that I could earn. My life was my work, whatever I was doing,” says Coffey. “So to be back at work, even though this is something quite different from what I’m used to, right away I felt well about it.”

For Coffey, key factors including medical treatment, a transition from living in an SRO to City of Vancouver Housing and a job which combined face-to-face social interaction with tangible and visible results all contributed greatly to his improved mental health and well-being. Indeed, while Coffey operates as a one-person team, he’s been able to maintain a great deal of face-to-face interaction, full-time, through his work.

“There’s so many regular people that, you know, I know their names. They know my name. They’ll say, ‘thank you for doing this, I appreciate this, nice to see you again, what are you going to be doing this weekend?’ It’s a pleasant neighbourly experience. And [the area] is better off when I’m done than when I began, which is always a nice feeling. I’d almost take a bit of proprietorship to the sidewalks,” says Coffey.

Coffey’s mental health story, like anyone one else’s, is affected by more than just one or two variables. But what can be said is that, for Coffey, much like the seniors in Qian’s study, having consistent face-to-face interactions has proved to be an essential piece of the puzzle in one’s mental health.

For more information please visit: https://news.ubc.ca/2021/07/26/virtual-contact-in-pandemic-prompts-over-60s-loneliness/