How Technology and Isolation May Affect Mental Health

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1 in 4 adults ages 50 to 80 experienced feelings of isolations. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements imposed during the pandemic have further increased the risk of loneliness, especially for the 35.7 million Americans living alone.

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Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Technology

According to the National Institute on Aging, “Social isolation is the objective physical separation from other people (living alone), while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated. It’s possible to feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone yet not feel lonely.

Loneliness and Social Isolation in the U.S.

Thirty-seven percent of adults with chronic conditions and physical or cognitive limitations feel socially isolated, compared with just 15% of adults who do not have these health issues. Additionally, 40% of respondents to a 2018 survey of 20,000 U.S. adults said they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated.

There are specific types of individuals most at risk of loneliness. These types include older adults, low-income individuals, and individuals with pre-existing mental illnesses.

A 2020 study looked at rates of depression and loneliness at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and found that 31% of respondents reported depressive symptoms in the past week. These respondents were more likely to be women, unmarried, ages 20 to 29, living alone, and in the lowest income bracket. Among respondents in romantic relationships, “increased relationship tension was associated with dramatically higher prevalence of both loneliness and depression, compared to those not experiencing such conflict,” according to study co-author Maya Leutke. Conversely, respondents that hugged or kissed a family member nearly every day in the last month were 28% less likely to report loneliness, and 26% less likely to report major depressive symptoms.

Increased Social Media Usage During COVID-19

A Harris Poll conducted between late March and early May found that 46% to 51% of American adults have increased their time on social media since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Fifty-one percent of respondents to a May 1-3 survey reported increased social media usage on certain platforms. Adults ages 35 to 49 reported a 64% increase, followed by a 60% increase for adults ages 18 to 34, and a 34% increase for adults 65 and older.

How Relationships and Loneliness Affect the Brain

To cope with loneliness, individuals turn to online social activities, such as virtual dance parties, online gaming, and synchronized Netflix viewings.

Receiving social rewards is healthy because it activates regions of the brain associated with motivation. The brain releases dopamine when social media users have successful social interactions. The reward pathways in the brain that release dopamine reinforce the association between a stimulus or sequence of behaviors and positive feelings. Conversely, feelings of loneliness and rejection activate regions of the brain associated with distress and rumination, which can make individuals feel even lonelier.

The Effects of Technology on Social Isolation and Mental Health

During COVID-19, Americans have become heavily dependent on technology and social media – not only for updates on the pandemic but also to maintain relationships with family, friends, and co-workers.

Technology’s Positive Effects on Human Connection

A randomized control trial studied the benefits of interactions between a robot baby seal and residents in a care home. The results showed reduced feelings of loneliness in participants. Another study using augmented reality to enable communication between two people found that participants reported a higher sense of social presence. A third study found that people are as likely to engage in conversation with a humanoid robot as they are with a person.

The reasons for these results have to do with interpersonal connectivity. According to psychologist Louise Hawkley, “For older adults who use Skype to talk with their grandkids who live across the country from them, technology really can improve their sense of connectedness.” Furthermore, according to the American Psychological Association, a study of nearly 600 older adults found that “social technology use, including Facebook, online video services such as Skype, and instant messaging, was linked to lower levels of loneliness, better self-related health, and fewer chronic illnesses and depressive syndrome.”

Technology’s Negative Effects on Human Connection

A 2017 study of young adults ages 19 to 32 found that individuals with higher social media usage are more than three times as likely to feel socially isolated, compared with those who use social media less frequently. Social media especially affects girls because their social life and status often revolve around intimacy and inclusion. Thus, girls are likely to experience the “fear of missing out” and relational aggression, which is common on social media.

Research has also shown that decreasing time spent on social media can help reduce feelings of loneliness among young adults ages 18 to 22. According to psychologist Louise Hawkley, “Those who are substituting online relationships for real relationships, unsurprisingly, don’t see a reduction in loneliness and in fact may actually see a deterioration relative to people who use online interactions to supplement their face-to-face relationships.”

Healthy Technology Usage for Addressing Social Isolation

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) and mental health professionals can promote healthy practices for using technology and social media to address the widespread problem of loneliness and social isolation.

How to Use Social Media and Technology to Support Socialization and Mental Health

One way people can stave off the effects of social isolation and loneliness is to use virtual platforms like Zoom and Skype. Another strategy is to control your social media intake by having a clear purpose for logging on or scheduling a time to browse. Additionally, individuals can minimize distractions, such as by unfollowing people that post negative content or disabling push notifications. You can also use platforms for good by sharing inspiring stories that have a positive influence on your emotional well-being. Finally, it can be a good idea to evaluate the effect of social media and technology on your mental health.

The Role of PMHNPs in Addressing Social Isolation

One way PMHNPs can help socially isolated people is to identify and address potential barriers to communication, like sensory impairments. They can also identify patients at risk of loneliness and assess for comorbidities. Additionally, PMHNPs can collaborate with other medical professionals to provide targeted social support. PMHNPs can also prioritize lonely patients for virtual visits. Finally, they can offer telehealth counseling to improve surveillance and mitigation of major complications of unaddressed loneliness.

Using Technology to Improve Mental Health

While using technology to address loneliness and social isolation has advantages and disadvantages, forming healthy technology usage habits and seeking guidance from mental health professionals can help individuals improve their emotional and mental well-being.

American Psychological Association, The Link Between Loneliness and Technology
American Psychological Association, The Risks of Social Isolation
Business Insider, 2020 US Social Media Usage: How the Coronavirus is Changing Consumer Behavior
International Council on Active Aging, 10 Ways to Stay Connected During COVID-19
JAMA Health Forum, Addressing Loneliness in the Era of COVID-19
MedRxiv, Depression and Loneliness During COVID-19 Restrictions in the United States, and Their
Associations with Frequency of Social and Sexual Connections
Mental Health First Aid, Three Ways to Use Social Media Positively
National Institute on Aging, Social Isolation, Loneliness in Older People Pose Health Risks
Nature, Scrutinizing the Effects of Digital Technology on Mental Health
Newswise, Depression and Loneliness During COVID-19
Science in the News, Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time