It’s no surprise that the pandemic has increased loneliness worldwide, but according to new research, it may not be as bad as was feared.
The research, which looked at 34 studies pertaining to loneliness from before and during the pandemic, was published in the journal American Psychologist on Monday.
The study suggests that the increase in loneliness during the pandemic was not as great as might have been expected, with around a five per cent increase in the prevalence of loneliness.
But researchers caution that any increase in loneliness can still have long-term health implications and needs to be followed more closely.
“The pandemic does appear to have increased loneliness,” Mareike Ernst, study lead author, said in a press release. “Given the small effect sizes, dire warnings about a ‘loneliness pandemic’ may be overblown. However, as loneliness constitutes a risk for premature mortality and mental and physical health, it should be closely monitored. We think that loneliness should be made a priority in large-scale research projects aimed at investigating the health outcomes of the pandemic.”
So how does one measure loneliness?
Researchers noted that while social isolation was certainly caused by life-saving measures such as lockdowns and physical distancing, this isn’t a one-to-one correlation with loneliness. A person can be socially isolated and not lonely depending on their close support systems and sense of self, just as they can be socially connected and still experience significant loneliness.
The paper defined loneliness as “the painful feeling — or “social pain” — that results from a discrepancy between the quantity (e.g., number of social contacts per day) and/or the quality (referring to the subjective experience of characteristics such as affection, intimacy, or conflict) of their desired and actual social connections.”
In order to try and track this, researchers looked at previous high-quality, longitudinal studies that included some element of measuring loneliness, usually through surveys or questionnaires that required participants to report on their feelings of loneliness over a period of time.
They looked at 34 studies from four continents, which included more than 215,000 participants in total, comparing studies published in 2019 prior to the pandemic with studies published during the pandemic, as well as studies that included a pre-pandemic and during-pandemic element.
By pooling the study results, they created a picture of the prevalence of reported loneliness before and during the pandemic.
“The during-pandemic assessments yielded higher continuous loneliness scores than the pre-pandemic assessments,” the study’s authors said.
“The present study extends previous knowledge on changes in loneliness during the pandemic; however, the observed increase needs to be interpreted with caution: On the one hand, loneliness can be considered a normal, nonpathological reaction to changing circumstances and many people experience it at some point in their lives. On the other hand, previous research has shown that particularly sustained or chronic loneliness jeopardizes mental and physical health.”
More research into this topic is needed, the study authors noted, in order to better identify factors that drive loneliness, as well as who is more at risk.
“Strong evidence supporting interventions addressing loneliness remains limited,” Ernst said. “The increase in loneliness associated with the pandemic highlights the need for a concerted effort to strengthen that evidence base.”
There are several limitations to the research. Authors noted that while they wanted to present a review of all the research on this topic that fell into their specifications, many of the studies had different designs or time spans that may have impacted the data, and could have left out certain groups.
The study also noted that there was a risk of bias in some of the studies reviewed, and that when they narrowed the pooled data to only the longitudinal study designs and studies with moderate risk of bias, the increase in loneliness during the pandemic appeared larger, suggesting that “the pooled effect in the present study might underestimate effects in at-risk populations.”
The majority of the studies also came from wealthy Western countries in Europe and North America, meaning the results may not be able to be applied to other regions of the world.