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OU research finds social media users lonelier than non-users during pandemic

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New research by OU academics and international colleagues finds that people across Europe, Asia, and North and South America using social media messaging apps and platforms felt lonelier than people not using them during the coronavirus pandemic.

The largest of its kind survey of more than 3,200 adults aged 18 and over living through lockdowns in 13 countries between April 2020 and September 2021 found that 49% of people using messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger or platforms such as Facebook reported feeling lonely. By contrast, the figure for those not using social media was 47%.

The researchers asked respondents to answer a series of 20 statements from the established UCLA Loneliness Scale, such as ‘I feel in tune with people around me’ and ‘I feel isolated from others’, on a scale of one (never) to four (often).

They found other online interactions better helped the survey respondents feel connected. For example, just 46% of people accessing online community support groups said they felt lonely, compared to 47% who weren’t involved in a group.

Loneliness was more prevalent among young people than their older counterparts. Close to one-third (31%) of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed said they felt lonely during the pandemic lockdowns compared to a quarter (25%) of people aged 30 to 39 and just over one-fifth between 40 and 49. Only one in 10 (10%) people in their fifties reported feeling lonely, marginally lower than the almost 11% of people over 60.

People in rural areas self-reported an average wellbeing score of 54% on the scale, compared to 60% in suburban areas and 61% in small towns.

Dr Hannah Marston led the research with OU colleague Professor Sarah Earle and researchers from Austria, Canada, France, Germany, India, Malta, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, and the US. She said:

“During the coronavirus pandemic, technology became the only mechanism to connect with others for many of us as restrictions and safety concerns left us unable to leave the house or engage in social activities. Still, people are social creatures, and our research demonstrates that online connection is not always a substitute for the real thing.

“We are already acutely aware of loneliness’ impact on older people, but we often overlook its prevalence in people earlier in life and those who live in more isolated areas. Scholars, the third sector and governments must focus more research on these communities and how technology and other demographic factors influence social isolation.

“These findings contribute to several disciplines, including social gerontology, gerontechnology, and public health. In addition, they can assist with the current discourse and route mapping of action plans in the Regional digital health action plan for the World Health Organisation’s European Region 2023-2030.”

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