The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resultant rolling lockdowns, has been lonely. Not only were we separated from loved ones, but we also missed simple everyday interactions such as the passing comment about the weather with a neighbour.
The number of people who feel lonely today is staggering. Approximately 3.7 million people in the United Kingdom reported that they felt lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’—a 40% rise in loneliness in young people in the past year according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics.
While the pandemic has exacerbated the issue, many experts have been talking about an impending “loneliness epidemic” for years. Dr Vivek Murthy, the former United States’ Surgeon General, has cautioned about the variety of health risks that loneliness poses.
Aside from it increasing the risk of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, it also predicts risk of physical ailments such as heart disease, hypertension, and even the morality risk of cancer.
Longitudinal studies have also found that loneliness may increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and that the degree of loneliness is associated with speed of cognitive decline in populations over the age of 70.
The downside of social media
Central to the conversation about loneliness is the role of technology in facilitating social isolation. Articles on the perils of technology on the mental health of users are being published faster than they can be read.
There is mounting evidence that even moderate social media use (over 30 minutes per day) can lead to social anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation.
Instagram and Snapchat use has been linked to lower self-esteem, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders in people under the age of 30. This effect is especially prevalent among girls aged 12–18 years old—the demographic who receive a disproportionate number of targeted advertisements for cosmetic and beauty products.
There is even some evidence that social media may increase suicide risk amongst users. One systematic review by a team of researchers at Kings College London found a correlation between heavy social media use (spending more than 2 hours a day on social media) and increased number of suicide attempts among young people between 10–24 years old.
The strength of this correlation diminished slightly when cyberbullying victimisation was controlled for, and the existence of a causal relationship cannot be established without longer-term studies.
The vicious cycle
Yet, despite these damning findings, we seem to be hurtling headfirst into an increasingly digital future. Notably, people often report using technology in order to feel connected to others. This creates a vicious cycle: the more people use technology to satisfy their need for connection, the lonelier they feel.
More recent research suggesting that technology use may not be categorically negative for mental health contradicts this rather bleak picture. In fact, under certain conditions—for example, when used to short periods (approximately 30 minutes a day) and if engaged in actively rather than passively—technology use can have some positive effects on users.
For example, the same systematic review that found that heavy social media use was linked with increased suicide attempts also found that limited social media use (less than an hour a day) was associated with fewer suicide attempts. Similarly, people who posted and commented on Instagram felt less anxious after engaging with the app for 30 minutes than users who were mindlessly scrolling.
Unfortunately, technologies like mobile phones and social media are designed to increase “user engagement”—i.e., addiction. They are not built to facilitate healthy, long-term use.
As we increase technological adoption, it is imperative that tech companies focus on creating products that meet our need for psychological connection instead of aggravating the problem.
Entering a virtual world
One avenue for designing technologies to facilitate social connection lies in the world of immersive and mixed reality. These technologies are designed to make people feel like they have left the real world and entered the virtual space, known as “virtual reality” (VR). Some allow for the superimposition of virtual objects, such as avatars, on the real world, known as “augmented reality” (AR).
Advances in VR and AR provide a unique opportunity for complex and meaningful social interactions as we enter the next iteration of the internet—Web 3.0.
Companies such as Meta and Microsoft have designed VR headsets that separates the user from their environment, immersing the user in a virtual world. Emerging evidence suggests that this visual immersion can make people feel connected as they generate a feeling of “social presence”.
Social presence is the ‘degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the inter-personal relationships’. In VR contexts, it means feeling like you are “there” with digital avatars and are psychologically connected to them. Other interpretations of social presence suggests that VR allows individuals to feel like they are in someone else’s body.
In other words, VR can create the illusion that you are another person. Both the feelings of co-existing in the space with someone else and embodiment improve the ability to take the perspective of another individual—a key component of empathy.
Virtual reality promotes empathy
While the field is still quite young and there is only a handful of research on VR and empathy, a few pioneering studies on VR gaming have shown that social presence mediates the relationship between VR and both prosocial attitudes and behaviours.
For example, one study found that VR increased players’ ability to perspective-take and, therefore, increased willingness to act prosocially towards digital avatars. Participants in the study either watched a VR video about a robot being destroyed in a fire or read a text describing the same event. All participants then played a game where they had to save some robots from a fire.
The results were startlingly clear. Participants who first watched the event in VR were overwhelmingly more empathetic towards the robots in the prosocial task. They were also significantly more motivated to save them from the fire.
Another study found that watching a video about Syrian refugees in VR increased willingness to donate money to human rights cases compared to watching the same video in a non-immersive format.
This research is just the tip of the iceberg. VR presents seemingly infinite opportunities for socialisation: from playing Catan with friends, to volunteering for human rights causes, to building a product prototype with colleagues from around the world.
AR has also been proposed as a tool to combat loneliness. In AR, the feeling of social presence is generated by making you feel like the digital avatar is “there” in your own environment.
While the pandemic significantly reduced socialization and negatively impacted mental health for many, one study found that 77% of gamers who played AR games (like Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite) felt more connected and less lonely. Indeed, they were able to continue virtual socialisation despite social distancing measures.
Preliminary data also suggests that AR can be used as an intervention in care homes. Indeed, elderly people report feeling less lonely after socialising with digital avatars.
Researchers at Nanjing University, China, built an AI-driven avatar (displayed on a screen) that keeps elderly people company at mealtimes. This virtual agent aims to combat the fact that many empty nesters no longer have the social interaction associated with communal dining.
Yet, AR is not widespread. It is currently expensive, and is technologically challenging to build for developers. That said, there is immense potential for AR to transform the way we socialise. It is easy to imagine interacting with your favourite singer, movie character, or friend superimposed in your own environment via AR when you want company.
Creating artificial touch
There is, however, one glaring hole with AR and VR. While both technologies can provide hyper-realistic visual immersion, they cannot provide immersion in the other four senses. This is particularly damning given that touch is an essential component of social connection.
Without tactile feedback, it is impossible for a virtual experience to replicate face-to-face social interaction.
One possible solution is to combine VR and AR with technologies that provide vibrotactile feedback, known as “haptic devices”. Haptic technologies are all around us today—from your phone vibrating from a text message to your watch vibrating to signify that you’ve reached your daily step goal. Haptics can recreate sensations associated with socialising (like stroking or a pat on the arm), and can also contribute to feelings of social presence.
My own DPhil research found that wearing a haptic wristband while listening to music generated a feeling of social presence. The haptic wristband made participants feel like someone was in the room with them while they were listening to the song. Participants also felt more empathy, more socially connected, and less lonely compared to when they listened to the same song without the wristband. In other words, haptics can generate feelings of connection even without VR.
It would be very easy to build small, inexpensive haptic wearable devices so we can feel more connected to loved ones when doing solitary activities, like watching Netflix alone in bed, or doing chores.
Immersive and mixed reality provide exciting new opportunities for engineers, psychologists, and computer scientists to build technologies to facilitate authentic social interaction. For example, Meta wants to build the “Metaverse”, an entirely tech-mediated reality where everything from shopping to working in an office will be done virtually.
As we spend more time in these new virtual worlds, it is imperative that we design them to make us feel more connected and socially fulfilled—not more isolated.