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Can you really combat loneliness using technology?

Loneliness. It is a distressing feeling to have – even the word itself seems hollow. Research suggests one in four Australians are lonely, and that one in two feel lonely at least one day a week. It’s been labelled an epidemic; and rightfully so, as higher levels of loneliness are associated with poorer mental wellbeing and poorer quality of life.

Dr Sharon Horwood, a lecturer from Deakin University’s School of Psychology, says feelings of loneliness are not the same as being alone. ‘You could feel lonely in a room full of people,’ she explains.

‘At the heart of loneliness is a feeling of disconnection from people or place. It’s often a feeling of sadness or perhaps distress, and can feel like there is something important missing from your life,’ Dr Horwood says. ‘It’s a very debilitating feeling, especially if it’s prolonged.’

Luckily, in our digitally connected world we have a multitude of virtual avenues to keep in touch with friends and family – even if we can’t be physically by their side. Staying connected with technology can do a lot to combat loneliness, sometimes in unexpected ways.

But, Dr Horwood warns technology can be both a good and a bad thing when it comes to combating loneliness. ‘It’s not a panacea, it’s not going to fix everyone’s loneliness or happiness just by virtue of being connected to the internet. It’s how we use it that matters.’

The best and worst ways to combat loneliness with technology

When it comes to using tech to connect, it usually gets a bad rap. According to Dr Horwood, this isn’t unfounded. Her research into smartphone use found that using technology for passive entertainment or passive engagement – such as scrolling through social media or watching YouTube – is actually associated with less happiness.

‘That doesn’t provide any meaningfulness to people, when they’re passively engaging with social media,’ Dr Horwood says. Although you might be seeing friends and family’s lives unfold on your Instagram newsfeed, ‘It’s one-directional interaction,’ she explains. You’re not actually engaging with them.

And engagement is the key when using technology to combat loneliness.

Using your technology to connect directly with other people – whether it’s through a voice or video call, or direct messaging – is associated with increased happiness, and Dr Horwood says these are the best ways to use technology if you’re feeling isolated or lonely.

‘I would certainly say that technology doesn’t ever replace face-to-face interactions. What it can do though, is facilitate interactions when face-to-face contact isn’t available.’

At the moment, while we can’t be in physical contact with one another, connecting by virtual means is a great supplement. It’s also a great way to stay in touch with friends and family living long distances away.

For Dr Horwood, tech is playing a big role in staying connected with her parents. The coronavirus pandemic has meant she can’t visit them on their farm, but she says Whatsapp has proven to be a great family communication device.

‘I had to teach my parents how to use it remotely which was challenging,’ she laughs. ‘But now we have this ongoing family chat, just to keep our spirits up, stay in touch and make sure everyone’s okay.

‘That’s only something that’s come about because of COVID-19, but I’m sure we’ll keep using it once this is all over.’

'At the heart of loneliness is a feeling of disconnection from people or place. It’s often a feeling of sadness or perhaps distress, and can feel like there is something important missing from your life'

Dr Sharon Horwood,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Not all forms of virtual communication are equal

When you think about all the various platforms we can use to connect with others – texting, calling, video calls – it appears we’re spoiled for choice. But Dr Horwood says not all virtual avenues of connecting are equal when it comes to combatting loneliness.

‘Video calls would be the optimal ways you could probably combat loneliness, because there’s the option to see the other person and there’s more to be gained in non-verbal communication with people,’ she explains.

‘You can see them smile, and can convey a lot of meaning without using language if you’re able to see another person via virtual face-to-face. So, they’re probably better than other forms like direct messages or emails even.’

In fact, she says any technology that allows you to see the other person is going to be much better than one that doesn’t.

This is because seeing a person’s non-verbal gestures can create more meaningful interactions, and Dr Horwood says, ‘It takes away the opportunity for misunderstanding.’

It’s often easy to worry about our interactions over text-based communication platforms for example, because the space for ambiguity is large. When you take tone, body language and facial expressions out of the picture, it’s easy to misread a situation.

You might worry a joke has been misconstrued and you’ve offended someone, or on the other side of that coin, you might agonize about whether the person on the other end actually wants to be texting you.

‘You might not spend as much time worrying about an interaction if you’re able to see the person’s face when you’re talking to them,’ Dr Horwood says.

With downloads of video chat applications like Zoom, Houseparty and discord exploding as a result of physical distancing restrictions, it’s clear video calls are a favourite among many when it comes to staying in touch.

Making meaningful connections with technology

 ‘The main benefit that you have with technology when you’re feeling lonely is the ability to reach out for help,’ Dr Horwood says. It’s a really good thing to be able to talk to family and friends you trust when you’re feeling isolated.

 Rather than suffering in silence, or being alone and not knowing what to do, you can ask for help,’ she says.

But Dr Horwood explains, ‘It doesn’t even have to be someone you know.’ If you feel you can’t talk to loved ones, another great thing technology affords us are virtual counselling or support platforms.

‘You can ask for help from online services, counselling services or support services,’ she says. There’s even a multitude of mental health apps out there to use.

Connecting with family, friends and support services is a great way to combat loneliness, but Dr Horwood also makes a valuable point about using technology to make new connections and find your tribe.

‘Loneliness can often feel like you don’t have a meaningful connection with others, and even if you are around other people, if you feel like they don’t share any of your interests you can feel very lonely,’ she says.

‘But using tech to meet and get to know like-minded people from anywhere in the world can lead to really fulfilling social connections for lots of people.’

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Dr Sharon Horwood
Dr Sharon Horwood

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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