With the recently appointed Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch, just about settling into her office, arranging her pot plants and plumping the cushions, now more than ever seems an apt time to take a closer look at the problems of social isolation and loneliness facing the UK, and the role that technology can and is playing in tackling these issues. There is a growing body of research around the issue of loneliness, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the issue is not exclusive to the elderly or the odd recluse – anyone can suffer from loneliness, even if they are not socially isolated. Almost everyone will have experienced the feeling of being in a large group without really feeling part of it – maybe you’ve stood in the corner at a party where you didn’t really know anyone, or even just spent couple of days at home so that when you emerge, you’re not sure if your voice still works. Although for many of us this is an occasional problem, it is rapidly becoming clear that for some people this state of social isolation and loneliness can continue for days, weeks or months on end.
Loneliness can have a huge impact on an individual’s mental and physical health. According to a study by Social Finance, sufferers are over three times more likely to have depression, almost twice as likely to develop dementia and two to three times more likely to be physically inactive, which may lead to all sorts of complications such as diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a researcher, found in 2015 that ‘weak social connections carry a health risk that is more harmful than not exercising, twice as harmful as obesity, and is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.’ Whilst all of these issues have received significant academic and public attention, loneliness has long been something of a taboo area, allowed into polite conversation only when discussing elderly neighbours and relatives or the eccentric, silent man in the corner of the coffee shop.
Looked at on a wider scale, loneliness can have serious implications for society and public sector resources. Sufferers are 1.8 times more likely to visit a GP and 1.6 times more likely to visit A&E, according to Social Finance, often simply as a way of gaining some human interaction and a connection with the world, but also as a result of the medical complications mentioned. As a problem, it is normally associated with the older population, but a recent nationwide study has suggested that loneliness can occur in all stages of life, including students. According to a study by the UCL Institute of Health Equality published in 2015 –
28.8% of the under 25s said they felt lonely some of time; 5.7% said they were lonely most of the time, a figure only 0.8% lower than that for the over 75 group.
Other factors can also play important roles – lower income is often a predicator of loneliness, and the charity Sense found that 23% of disabled people feel lonely most days, rising to 38% for young disabled people. Clearly then, there are factors that can increase the risk of loneliness, but it is very much a problem that can face anyone at any time.
So how can technology help tackle the problem? Arguably – or at least according to some members of the older generation – it has actually contributed to the problem. People are engaged 24/7 with their online world rather than trying to build relationships and connecting with those around them. Technology, researcher Hannah Griffith notes, can also exclude those with a lower income – they simply don’t have access to it, and so struggle to take part in a world that is increasingly alien to them. These criticisms should not be dismissed out of hand – certainly, it is very easy to become so engrossed in media such as Instagram and Facebook that FOMO becomes an ever present ghoul on your shoulder. And there is no denying that the huge role technology now plays in society means that those who do not possess an iPhone or a laptop can feel excluded from the fast-paced and unforgiving world they live in.
Nevertheless, there has also been a surge in the number of formal and informal ways in which technology is helping to combat the issues of loneliness. In particular, it can provide more traditional ways of helping with loneliness with a larger platform and easier access. Take, for example, the Casserole Club. Set up in 2011 by FuturGov, The Casserole Club is a network of volunteers who share extra portions of home-cooked food with people in their area who aren’t always able to cook for themselves. 80% of those receiving meals would have far less social contact if it wasn’t for the club, and many of those receiving meals count the volunteers as their friends:
So far, so traditional, all the way down to Maggie’s casserole. But The Casserole Club website has acted as a hugely successful catalyst for the organisation; four years after it was set up, there are now 7,000 branches in England and Australia. The website is incredibly easy to navigate – something that is crucial when it comes to helping the elderly – and because of the extensive network, the set-up is hugely flexible for everyone involved.
This flexibility is something that comes up again and again when talking about technology and loneliness. Another example of this is call centres. Often, these are overlooked when it comes to discussions of dealing with social isolation, but as well as the more well-known lines – Samaritans and Childline to name a couple – there are several specifically aimed at combating loneliness. The Silver Line Helpline is a 24-hour call centre simply providing the older generation with some human contact. Volunteers can do shifts that fit in with their schedule, and sufferers can ring up whenever, wherever – the Blackpool centre now receives some 1,500 calls a day, researcher Katie Hafner notes, and an typical morning can involve one call listening to a chap in his 80s chat about his list of favourite films, followed by a harmonica serenade.
These more traditional and formal ways of harnessing technology to combat loneliness are increasingly being joined by newer, emerging methods. The app Be My Eyes connects blind people to volunteers at the touch of a single button, allowing them to check things as banal as the best-by date on food or as significant as reading pregnancy results. Studies have shown that loneliness is a common side effect of blindness and apps such as Be My Eyes make the process of getting through life that bit easier.
Video credits: Be My Eyes.
Of course, it would be impossible to talk about technology and loneliness without addressing social media. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been described by Kim Leadbeater, Jo Cox’s sister, as a ‘double-edged sword’, and it is true that it is easy to become more focused on our online connections than the physical human beings around us. But there are undeniable positives to social media as well. Virtual friendships can evolve into real-life relationships; the parenting website Netmums.com says around 10,000 women meet face to face each month after getting in touch online. Hashtags might be mocked incessantly, but comedian Sarah Millican has launched the #joinin campaign every Christmas for the last eight years, because ‘[she’s] a big softie and can’t bear to think of people being alone on Christmas Day’. Each Christmas Day, thousands of people across the UK are able to connect through Twitter and talk about how their turkey is doing, what they’re doing instead of watching the Queen’s speech and occasionally, something a little more profound.
As Tracey Couch’s appointment shows, loneliness and social isolation are becoming more widely accepted as significant problems that need to be confronted directly. Some of the statistics can be depressing; one source notes that 200,000 elderly people in the country have not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in over a month, and most shockingly of all, a report commissioned by the UK Parliament points out that loneliness has been found to increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%’. The problem has to be dealt with, and whilst technology has its drawbacks, the potential it has to help solve loneliness is huge, and should be celebrated and embraced, not cast aside.
By Lauren Woodhead