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Survey: Loneliness not rising during COVID-19 lockdowns

Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have worried that social distancing and stay-at-home orders would lead to a surge in loneliness. But a new U.S. study suggests it has not played out that way.

In a national survey, researchers found that one month into state lockdowns, Americans were no more likely to feel isolated and lonely than they were pre-COVID-19. In fact, people often said they felt more connected to others.

The findings, researchers said, are a measure of how well people have adjusted during the pandemic.

“It’s always interesting to be proven wrong,” said psychologist James Maddux, referring to expert forecasts that loneliness would increase, possibly dramatically.

Maddux, who was not involved in the study, said its results are important.

“I think this is a testament to human adaptability and resilience,” said Maddux, a senior scholar with the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

That’s not to say that no one has suffered from isolation during the pandemic, said lead researcher Martina Luchetti, an assistant professor at Florida State University College of Medicine.

But on average, the survey found, respondents reported no increase in loneliness. And that was also true of certain groups expected to be at particular risk — including people living alone and those with chronic health conditions.

There was some change among older adults, who reported an increase in loneliness at the beginning of the crisis, as social distancing recommendations were issued.

But that rise leveled off after stay-at-home orders came into force.

Why was there no national descent into loneliness?

The survey can’t answer that question. But Luchetti said “physical distance” does not have to mean social isolation. And the results are in line with what many people are saying anecdotally — that they are finding ways to connect, with the help of platforms like FaceTime and Zoom.

In fact, the quality of many daily connections may have improved — with people asking “how are you?” and actually talking about it.

“People may be checking in with each other more, and checking in with friends who they weren’t connecting with before,” Luchetti said.

Maddux agreed. “Even work emails are being signed off with ‘Stay safe,'” he noted.

Maddux said it would not surprise him if those kinds of human interaction — however remote — are making a difference. “It is possible to feel close and supported without being face-to-face,” he said.

Beyond that, the researchers pointed out, physical distancing was in service of slowing the pandemic. A feeling of contributing to the greater good may have boosted “resilience to loneliness,” they said.

The study was published June 22 in American Psychologist. It involved more than 2,000 U.S. adults who were part of a loneliness survey done in January and February. After COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in March, the researchers decided to contact the survey participants again, to gauge how things had changed for them.

They asked them the same questions about loneliness in late March, and again in late April — about a month into stay-at-home orders in most U.S. states.

On average, the survey found, respondents reported no increase in loneliness, and actually tended to feel more “perceived support” from others, versus January/February.

Older adults were the only group who reported a temporary increase in loneliness. However, they started out in a better place — reporting less loneliness than younger people did pre-COVID-19. And the increase plateaued in April.

It’s not clear why. But, Maddux said, one possibility is that at first, many older adults were not big technology users. And then they learned.

Going forward, Maddux said, older adults who did figure out Zoom and Skype may well want to keep using technology to stay connected.

But while the survey findings are encouraging, they only captured people’s experiences into late April. It will be important, Luchetti said, to monitor how people fare as time goes on — especially those who are older or have health conditions that may limit their face-to-face contact as states reopen.

Surveys also have limits, like losing respondents over time. This survey started off with close to 3,800 people, and just over 2,000 responded to the follow-up in March. People who reported more loneliness at the outset were more likely to drop out.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on combating loneliness.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

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