COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns led to a global rise in loneliness

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic led to an increase in loneliness around the world, a new study finds.

Researchers with the American Psychological Association found that people all over the globe suffered an increase in loneliness during the pandemic, which could have implications for people’s long-term mental and physical health, longevity, and well-being.

“The pandemic does appear to have increased loneliness,” says study lead author Dr. Mareike Ernst from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany in a media 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.”

Is social isolation and loneliness always the same thing?

Dr. Ernst and her colleagues wanted to explore whether changes such as lockdowns, social distancing, and the switch to remote work and school during the pandemic increased levels of loneliness worldwide.

Researchers add that these measures undoubtedly increased social isolation, but studies have also found that social isolation does not always lead to loneliness. Social isolation means having a small social network and few interactions with others, while loneliness is the painful feeling of having less or poorer quality social connections than a person wants. Some studies have found only weak correlations between the two.

To figure out whether the pandemic actually increased loneliness, the researchers reviewed 34 studies from four continents. They focused primarily on Europe and North America and included more than 200,000 total participants. All of the data came from long-term studies that measured participants’ levels of loneliness before the onset of the pandemic and again during COVID.

The researchers found a “small but significant” increase in loneliness during the pandemic — about a five-percent increase in the prevalence of loneliness across the individual studies, on average. However, not all groups experienced that increase.

Is loneliness a universal problem after COVID?

Dr. Ernst says more research is necessary to examine the factors that put some individuals and groups at higher risk of experiencing loneliness, whether the changes in loneliness are primarily due to alterations in the quality or the quantity of people’s social interactions. The team also wants to see if those changes differ across various social groups, such as students and older adults.

Researchers believe such studies could help scientists develop better targeted interventions to increase people’s amount of social interaction or to improve the quality of their close relationships.

“Strong evidence supporting interventions addressing loneliness remains limited. The increase in loneliness associated with the pandemic highlights the need for a concerted effort to strengthen that evidence base,” Ernst adds.

The team notes that because the majority of the studies in this review come from high and upper-middle-income countries, further research should also investigate whether the pandemic has led to an increase in loneliness in low and middle-income countries as well.

The findings appear in the journal American Psychologist.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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