Loneliness and the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing more attention to loneliness and its negative effects due to lockdowns, physical distancing and self-isolation measures, as evidenced in the media during the past few months.

While there is scant evidence to support claims of a ‘loneliness epidemic’ (a narrative that so many media outlets seem to love), loneliness levels might be increasing as a result of the measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Loneliness is a serious social and health problem and should be approached as such, even if it’s not an ‘epidemic’. For example, older people who are lonely are at higher risk of functional decline, depression, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, and dementia. Thus, it is critical to understand how to alleviate and combat loneliness during the pandemic and in post-COVID recovery plans.

The present pandemic might have allowed us to, at least, start a broader conversation about loneliness. As I wrote in early April in this media article on how COVID was changing the world:

“As we self-isolate from family, friends, and communities to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, many of us are experiencing the cruelties of social isolation and loneliness. These cruelties are not new – they’re the reality of many older Australians, particularly those who are frail and live alone or in care homes.”

I ended that piece with a hopeful note:

“Despite the toll of this pandemic, it’s giving us a chance to realise the power of social connection. It’s providing a window into how pernicious loneliness and social isolation are. It’s forcing us to talk about it. It will create more awareness towards lonely older people and to each other – and show that we can take a more active role in combating loneliness.

In another media article on loneliness in later life, this time for the ABC, I also emphasized the need to engage in physical distancing not social distancing – “as the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove explained of the shift in terminology: “We want people to still remain connected.””

We know that social connection is linked to better health and quality of life and even with the capacity to overcome crises and disasters.

I talked to countless journalists about the pandemic providing us an opportunity to destigmatize loneliness. My research on the topic in Canada and Australia for the past several years has shown how damaging the stigma of loneliness is, particularly for older people. The fear of being stigmatized – in combination with the stigma of being old and frail – is something that my participants talk constantly about during our interviews, regardless of the country, care home, health circumstances, or cultural group. No intervention will be effective in the long-term if we don’t address the social stigma associated with loneliness.

The jury is still out to see if we are indeed becoming more aware of loneliness as a social problem – not just an individual issue that the person on their own can fully change.

I am certain that several studies will be examining the issue. My recent study with Narelle Warren on the lived experiences of older Victorians living alone and experiencing loneliness will certainly offer some rich insights. We are ‘following’ a group of 35 older Victorians during lockdown; our study includes longitudinal interviews and multimedia diaries to flesh out personal and social dimensions of loneliness.

Loneliness kills; loneliness makes us sick. If we want to fully alleviate and prevent it, we need to first understand its multilayered nature and how the individual and the social interplays. And for that, sociology has a central role.

As C. Wright Mills would suggest, we need more sociological imagination in loneliness studies — we need to grasp the micro and the macro, the individual and the collective, the agentic and the structural, and their interplay: that is sociology’s “task and promise.”

OMG, I’m one of the ABC’s Top 5 in Australia!

This year I had the immense honor of being named by the ABC and the University of Sydney among the ABC Top 5 Scholars in Australia (Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences). The program awards early-career scholars (“the next generation of talent”) a media residency at the ABC studios in Sydney!

During the program, I learned from Australia’s best journalists and producers; the aim was to develop and hone a set of critical communication skills to reach a wider and more general audience. It was such a privilege to work with the ABC to translate and disseminate my research on loneliness and technology use in later life. It allowed me to amplify the voices of my participants, and to start a broader conversation about ageing, technology, and loneliness.

In addition to the radio and TV interviews I gave during the residency (covering, for example, ageism), I am extremely proud of these two outcomes:

I wrote this article (Op-ed) for the ABC: “I spent five years speaking with people in nursing homes. This is what I learnt about loneliness”. It brings together research that I conducted in Canada and Australia, with the support of aged-care facilities and providers who are dedicated to tackling loneliness and its deleterious consequences.

Article continues here 🙂

I also produced this radio segment for ABC RN Future Tense: Digital Technology & Lonely Older People. I interviewed Associate Prof. Roger Patulny, Dr Jenny Waycott, and Prof. Ron Baecker to explore how emerging technologies can be used and designed to help address loneliness. We discussed both challenges and opportunities 😉

I’m so grateful for this extraordinary ABC program and for the long-life effects it will have on my work. It is already contributing to rich public engagement and impact – in response to my Op-ed (above), I received countless emails of people sharing their stories of loneliness and ageism. All the messages encouraged me to continue my research, highlighting its significance and value.

A special thanks to Simon Nicholas, Anna Kelsey-Sugg, Karin Zsivanovits, Monique Ross, Simon Brown, Roi Huberman, all the wonderful ABC staff, and my dear ABC Top 5 mates.

New book: “Ageing and Digital Technology – Designing and Evaluating Emerging Technologies for Older Adults” (2019)

It has been a busy year, and my second edited collection (this time around with Springer) is in its final production stage. Prof. Frank Vetere (Computer Science, Univ. of Melbourne) and I have curated an outstanding collection bringing together, for the first time, Social and Computer Scientists working on designing and evaluating emerging technologies for older adults.

Here’s the blurb:

“This book brings together Sociologists, Computer Scientists, Applied Scientists and Engineers to explore the design, implementation and evaluation of emerging technologies for older people. It offers an innovative and comprehensive overview, not only of the rapidly developing suite of current digital technologies and platforms, but also of perennial theoretical, methodological and ethical issues. As such, it offers support for researchers and professionals who are seeking to understand and/or promote technology use among older adults. The contributions presented here offer theoretical and methodological frameworks for understanding age-based digital inequalities, participation, digital design and socio-gerontechnology. They include ethical and practical reflections on the design and evaluation of emerging technologies for older people, as well as guidelines for ethical, participatory, professional and cross-disciplinary research and practice. In addition, they feature state-of-the-art, international empirical research on communication technologies, games, assistive technology and social media. As the first truly multidisciplinary book on technology use among ageing demographics, and intended for students, researchers, applied researchers, practitioners and professionals in a variety of fields, it will provide these readers with insights, guidelines and paradigms for practice that transcend specific technologies, and lay the groundwork for future research and new directions in innovation.”

More here.

So, watch this space 🙂

New book hot off the press!

We have been working on this project for a few years, so Cláudia Casimiro and I are delighted to see our edited book out with Policy Press: “Connecting Families? Information & Communication Technologies, Generations, and the Life Course“. Our experience with the publisher has been excellent, and we were very proud to work with a not-for-profit academic publisher.

This collection brings together ground-breaking sociological research on the relationship between family life and Information & Communication Tech (ICTs), within a generational and life course perspective. It includes chapters from five continents, addressing a major gap: namely, the lack of a critical understanding of the interplay of ICTs & family dynamics across regions and contexts. We have a list of exceptional contributors – check out the Table of Contents here.

Professor Barry Wellman (Canada) honoured us with an outstanding foreword, Professor Elizabeth Silva (UK) with a thought-provoking afterword. Our Intro – explaining the aims, approach, title, and sections – can be found here.

In addition, we were honoured to be selected for an “Authors meet critics” session at the XIX Congress of the International Sociological Association (ISA) that was just held in Toronto, Canada. We took the opportunity to launch our book there and, based on the overall contributions, discuss some overarching reflections on the topic with the audience. In particular, two main points emerged in the discussion:

1. Understanding ICTs & family requires numerous tools to grasp changes and continuities in its interplay.

2. We need to overcome binary assumptions of technology impact (positive vs. negative) and technologically deterministic views: family and ICTs shape each other, offering opportunities and challenges for care, intimacy, support, solidarity, work-family balance, etc. Context is critical and the ? in the title wanted to capture that.

Our full presentation is here.

We will be tweeting about relevant research, events, conferences, publications @FamiliesAndTech

Please ping us for sample copies or discounts.

Praise

“Connecting Families…. offers a vital and timely contribution to the multivalent links of ICTs with families. That its backbone is life course gives an additional bonus of insight and perspective.”
Susan A. McDaniel, Canada Research Chair in Global Population & Life Course, President of the ISA Family Research Committee, University of Lethbridge, Canada

“Well-written, thorough and up to date, this is an essential book for both graduate and post-graduate students and all professionals who wish to improve their knowledge on ICT and family relationships today.”
Fausto Amaro, University of Lisbon

‘Ageing, Technology, and Multidisciplinary Research: Intended and Unintended Consequences’

Here is my piece for NEXUS, the Newsletter of The Australian Sociological Association. It focuses on my ageing research in Human-Computer Interaction, particularly my accomplishments and challenges in a multidisciplinary and applied environment. Thanks Sue Malta, for inviting me to contribute to your last issue as an editor – it was an honor!

Media interview: “Why are you into old people?” – Aging, youth, and new technology

I was interviewed last week for the Portuguese newspaper i. It was a piece by a brilliant journalist, Ana Tomás, so it turned out to be a fun and insightful conversation. It is always interesting to reflect on what was asked and in what context — see my previous post on my Canadian TV interview. Here are some brief (quick and dirty) reflections.

The interview was mostly about how my generation (generation Y, if you are into those labels) will adapt to new technologies as we age. The assumption is that it will be easier for us, since we are used to new technologies. This reminded me of two questions people ask me constantly:

1) Why are you “into old people”? I have heard this question more often than I could expect, which also taps into a certain widespread ageism…

2) Don’t you think this problem (of an age-based digital divide) will be solved within one generation?

First of all, I am interested in aging in a life course perspective; I have also studied use and non-use amongst young adults. Second, not quite. I am not a futurologist, but I think we deceive ourselves into believing that our generation will not have these problems, because we grew up with touchscreen devices and the Web. My research suggests two ideas that might help deconstruct the aforementioned assumption:

1. The technology of today is not the technology of tomorrow, specially in the fast-paced realm of ICTs.

2. As we age, our needs, bodies, and abilities also change.

The fast development of ICTs implies changing demands on digital literacy and critical skills, which are linked to socioeconomic dimensions. Technology is also socially shaped: i.e., there are social and ideological choices embedded in the design and implementation of any technology. Most technologies are not generally designed for older adults, since young people are the usual target demographic, and the most avid consumers of new technology.

To give an example of this process, at TAGlab we developed an accessible communication app for frail and other older adults called InTouch. However, even though we tried to create an accessible app with large fonts, large icons, and an intuitive interface, we had problems with the hardware as soon as we deployed InTouch. The tablets were too heavy for some of our participants (a few only had the use of one hand, being stroke survivors) and most could not find the side on/off button, due to dexterity and motor issues. We had to paint it with nail polish to help them find the buttons.

In brief, I actually think we will face similar problems. It is crucial, therefore, to continue to look at how technology can be developed for and with older adults – their agency has to be taken seriously in the design and implementation of technology.

Homo academicus & the elevator pitch – TV interview

I was on “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” on Wednesday. It was a panel about loneliness with a wonderful group of guests, including THE amazing Louise Hawkley from the University of Chicago. The host was great and the producer was even greater. It was my first TV interview in Canada (and I was a bit nervous), but it was an interesting experience. It made me realize that my training as an academic (or a bad academic, I must say) is not really suited for these media panels. I’ve been interviewed for TV before, mostly in Portugal and Brazil, but in different formats. Homo academicus are used to long debates and are always cautious about clear-cut relationships and unidimensional models of causality – i.e., saying that one factor causes something, since there is always a dynamic interplay of factors, which are often hard to disentangle. We say “there’s a positive association”, “data suggests”, “results are interesting”, and so on. Likewise, it’s extremely hard to say that “the research tells us that” without providing a long list of references.

Based on this particular experience, I realized that I need to be able to explain several complex concepts in 60 seconds (the ‘elevator pitch’ is a useful metaphor here). So, allons-y, my first written attempt:

1. Technological determinism – the idea that technology is the only cause or condition for social change, which also means that its consequences are inevitable and completely independent of us. Technology is the sole driver and powerful force of humankind. When we talk about the “bronze age”, the “stone age” or the “Facebook age”, we are saying that technology is the main engine of human history and that there is nothing else. This perspective is known as technological determinism (there’s actually hard and soft technological determinism, but I’ll leave it to another time) and it is rejected by most sociologists of technology, because a myriad of factors influence social change (e.g., social, psychological, cultural, economic, etc.). And those factors are often intertwined with technology, because technologies are human and social tools. A pencil is also a technology. In fact, technologies are part of society — they are socio-technical systems — meaning that several social factors already influence its design, implementation, use, and evolution. A famous historical example is the development of the QWERTY keyboard: it was not designed to be optimal or efficient, but to minimize typing speed since typists were fast and constantly jamming the keys. But as the QWERTY layout was accepted by IBM and other companies, people got used to it and it became the standard keyboard. This is not to say that technology does not shape or affect us, of course it does, but we also shape and affect technology. For instance, the adoption of any technology depends on a specific social context – that social context can discourage or encourage adoption and will affect both its usage and effects.

2. Scientific cherry picking – picking one study that supports your argument and ignoring a boatload of other studies. This is visible with the use of the “Internet paradox” of Robert Kraut and colleagues (1998) or the “Alone Together” of Sherry Turkle (2011), when discussing the relationship between Internet use and sociability or social connectedness. For example, Bob Kraut and colleagues published in 1998 a longitudinal study (73 households during 1995-1996) showing that using the Internet for communication purposes was associated with declines in communication with family members in the household, decreases in the size of social networks, and increases in depression and loneliness. Although several scholars criticized the selection of the participants and the fact that Internet users at the time were newbies, not having most of their social ties online, this study became a paradigm of the social effects of the Internet. However, the results were revisited in a follow-up study (1998–1999) by the same authors. In the “Internet Paradox Revisited”, Kraut and colleagues (2002) studied the long-term impact of Internet use on members of the original sample and found that the negative effects were no longer observable. Interestingly, their original study is constantly cited and mentioned by media pundits – and scholars alike – but their 2002 study is often forgotten. To conclude, two important points here: first, science is made of constant replication (one study is not enough), and 2) we can only know if scientific results are well grounded and good (valid and reliable) when we consider how the study was done (methodology), including how the participants were selected (sampling), how the data was collected, and what tools were used to analyze that data. The “scientific halo effect” is also cleverly used to enhance cherry picking — just mention one study conducted by a Professor from MIT or Harvard and that always seems to be enough to convince others. Fortunately, good science works hard at avoiding (or trying to avoid) cognitive biases.

Note: Although this would not be part of my elevator pitch and it’s a simple descriptive indicator, I looked at the number of citations each paper has on Google Scholar and even when adjusting for the different publication dates (first paper was published in 1998, second one in 2002), the original article is considerably cited more often in the last 10 years (click to enlarge):

3. Impression Management – It’s what we do to make others see us the way we want others to see us (usually in a good light). Impression management efforts are the techniques, practices, and actions that we use to control our we present ourselves and how we act in social environments. The way I dress, walk, and talk to a co-worker or a friend, are often crafted to convey a certain persona. So, the common belief that there is only “impression management” online (or on Facebook) is quite interesting, because we are always crafting personas for public consumption – be it online or offline.

4. Difference between a friend and an online contact – An online contact is someone you add online, for instance, to Facebook or Twitter. A friend is someone you share something with, besides an electronic link. You can have, of course, a virtual friend, i.e., someone that you share and feel close to online. But an online contact is not necessarily a friend: we tend to use adjectives to qualify our friends, when someone says: “He’s my Facebook friend” we know that the expression sets a tone for that type of relationship, which is different from “He’s my friend” or “He is my best friend”. When I talk about social connectedness, I talk about meaningful social relationships; those relationships that bring us joy, satisfaction, and support. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that when the Internet is used for communication, it has positive effects on social connectedness (at least, so far, controlling for a variety of sociodemographic factors, and even for “socially isolated” groups). By overwhelming evidence I am referring to the abundant and systematic research done in the last ten years (+50 worldwide studies…would be dying to list all the references at this moment). Now, the Internet might have positive or negative individual effects depending on how it is used: if you use the Internet mostly for individual entertainment, you can’t expect your levels of social connectedness to increase (e.g., several studies about introverted people show that they mainly use the Internet for entertainment; contrary to the idea that they use it for communication in order to compensate for their perceived low social skills). Having said that, there are issues that I anticipate will affect social connectedness in the future – hypotheses that have to be, of course, properly tested – such as privacy issues or cyberbullying.

How did it go? A bit long still, but I’ll work on it.

© Steve Paikin

Our work in the news!

Ron Baecker and I were interviewed for a CBC radio special with Jesse Hirsh. We talked about social isolation and loneliness among older adults, and what we are developing and testing at TAGlab to help reduce it.

Our research was highlighted in a CBC news piece entitled “How Skype and email could help seniors to avoid loneliness – and an early death”, and the radio show is available here.

Although there was no time to explain the difference between social isolation and loneliness on air, I should emphasize that difference here. In a multidimensional perspective, social isolation can be defined as a lack of quality, and/or quantity of social ties, low levels of participation in social activities, loneliness, as well as a lack of social support or social capital (Cornwell & Waite, 2009; Baecker et al., 2014). Loneliness is defined as a subjective feeling of isolation, of not belonging, or of lacking companionship (Perissinotto et al., 2012). Social isolation may lead to feelings of loneliness, but loneliness does not depend on social isolation per se: an individual can have a vast social network, but feel lonely, or not feel lonely even though they only have a small social network (Masi et al., 2011).

References

– Baecker, R., Neves, B., Sellen, K., Crosskey, S., & Boscart V. (2014, October 21). Technology to reduce social isolation and loneliness. Paper presented at ASSETS ’14: Proceedings of the 16th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on computers & accessibility, Rochester, New York. doi:10.1145/2661334.2661375
– Cornwell E. Y., & Waite, L. J. (2009). Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50(1), 31-48.
– Masi, C., Chen, H. Y., Hawkley, L., Cacioppo, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219-266.
– Perissinotto, C. M., Cenzer, S., Covinsky, K. E. (2012). Loneliness in older persons: A predictor of functional decline and death. Archives of Internal Medecine, 172(14), 1078-1083

Digital Exclusion & Social Inequality – Invited keynote in Brazil

I was recently invited to give a keynote at the University of Passo Fundo (Brazil), during the International Congress on Aging Studies. I was spoiled rotten by a wonderful team and a fantastic audience.

My talk was based on the following claim: non-Internet use, be it involuntary or voluntary, can be a form of social inequality, when it excludes people from accessing a set of socio-economic benefits (e.g., online communication opportunities, online services, etc.) and excludes people from a social and public dimension of contemporary societies (e.g., online sociability and public participation, public services migrated to online-only, etc.). I mostly focused on my research with older adults (65+), although mentioning my work with young people as well. I also used quantitative and qualitative data from my doctoral research to show how social capital decreases with age, but how older adults that are daily Internet users are more likely to have higher levels of social capital when comparing to older moderate, light, and non-users. In addition, I addressed the main challenges faced by older adults in adopting and using the Internet, the importance of intergenerational relationships, and the crucial role of critical digital literacy to overcome some of the potential risks and concerns with the ‘online’ world.

I had a great time in Passo Fundo, and met the Brazilian senator Paulo Paim, who authored the Brazilian bill of rights of seniors, known as the “Elderly Statute”. Here is a picture of us:

I gave a few interviews as well. Here is an excerpt of one of my TV interviews; this was shot after my long trip to Brazil, so please forgive my tired-looking eyes (in Portuguese):

Thank you, University of Passo Fundo. A special thanks to Professor Adriano Pasqualotti, for inviting me and making me feel so welcome in Brazil. Muito obrigado!

Co-adopção entre casais do mesmo sexo

Hoje vou escrever em Português. Os meus seguidores que não falam a língua de Camões que me perdoem, mas é um assunto que tem que ser debatido na minha língua.

Em Portugal, o diploma sobre a co-adopção entre casais do mesmo sexo foi hoje chumbado no parlamento. Este projecto lei (do PS) tinha sido aprovado no plenário no ano passado, embora os projectos (do BE e do PEV) sobre adopção plena por casais do mesmo sexo tivesse sido reprovado. A justificação mais ouvida entre oponentes (e a mais divulgada nos sites de redes sociais) é a seguinte: é necessário garantir o “superior interesse da criança”.

Esta ideia do “superior interesse da criança” não passa de uma posição dogmática, ideológica, demagógica e falaciosa. Investigação de décadas de várias disciplinas científicas sobre a adopção de crianças por casais homossexuais é clara e aqui vão os seus entendimentos:

1. Relatório da Ordem de Psicólogos Portuguesa

2. American Psychology Association – www.apa.org/about/policy/parenting.aspx

3. American Academy of Pediatrics – http://tinyurl.com/cjopvj5 (Peço desculpa por ter criado um tinyurl, mas o link era bastante extenso e eu não o queria embebido directamente)

4. American Anthropological Association
http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/Statement-on-Marriage-and-the-family.cfm

5. Last, but not least, American Sociological Association.

Esta lista que compilei não engloba apenas ciência sociais, mas também ciências da saúde, como a pediatria. Não me foquei apenas na Sociologia, embora esta tenha vindo a demonstrar sistematicamente que a heteronormatividade é uma forma de opressão e de discriminação de pessoas que não se enquadram nessa norma social, porque queria deixar um leque alargado de campos científicos. Espero que estes vários campos e seus entendimentos colectivos venham desconstruir posições não fundamentadas cientificamente sobre o bem-estar de crianças adoptadas por casais do mesmo sexo.

Para terminar, gostava de relembrar o artigo 13º da nossa constituição que versa sobre o princípio da igualdade:

1. Todos os cidadãos têm a mesma dignidade social e são iguais perante a lei.

2. Ninguém pode ser privilegiado, beneficiado, prejudicado, privado de qualquer direito ou isento de qualquer dever em razão de ascendência, sexo, raça, língua, território de origem, religião, convicções políticas ou ideológicas, instrução, situação económica, condição social ou orientação sexual.

Portanto, a questão da co-adopção e adopção de crianças entre casais do mesmo sexo é um direito humano e um direito constitucional.