Staying in touch with friends and family via technology made many older people feel more lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, researchers have research.
The study, led by researchers from the UK’s Lancaster University, showed that many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own, the Guardian reported.
“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University.
“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.
The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Sociology.
The problem was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness, the report quoted Yang as saying.
“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” he said.
The team collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US — both before and during the pandemic.
“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.
Yang said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.
The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, he noted.