Before the coronavirus caused a second severe lockdown in the Australian city of Melbourne, Karen Lamb, a 35-year-old statistic, was going to the theater, weekly choir practices, dance classes and spending a lot of time with her friends.
But the lockdowns in his city disrupted Lamb’s social behavior. Her world has moved to the internet, and Lamb can feel lonely at times.
Large numbers of people reported feeling lonely in the first wave of coronavirus quarantines in early 2020.
According to research by loneliness expert Michelle Lim, from Swinburne University of Technology (Australia), one in two Australians reported feeling lonely during their first confinement.
In the United Kingdom and the United States, the proportion was two out of three.
Now researchers in Australia are examining how these periods of forced isolation are changing our social interactions.
Although the pandemic is developing differently depending on the country, in general we share the same concern: if the blockades are changing the way we socialize, how long will our loneliness last?
Consolidating the networks of friends
Initial results of a follow-up survey they sent out of almost 2,000 Australians have shown that there are some major behavioral changes related to the pandemic taking place.
The research is a joint project between two academics, Dr Marlee Bower, a loneliness researcher at the University of Sydney, and sociologist Roger Patulny, from the University of Wollongong, Australia.
Bower says that in the open responses to the survey, many people indicated that they had started to reduce their social networks.
“They don’t socialize with as many people as before, but with a very particular subgroup,” he says. “People who have previous connections and can take advantage of their existing friendships online are doing quite well. In many cases, they are closer to the friends they had.
That has been the case for Lamb, who is Scottish but has lived in Melbourne for eight years.
Before the lockdown, she talked to Amy, one of her oldest friends, about four or five times a year.
Now they talk every Thursday, at a certain time, and they both wonder why they hadn’t done it before.
Some of his other friends, however, have not held up as well.
“It has been easier for me to keep in touch with my Scottish friend than with my Australian friends,” says Lamb. “I just haven’t had that online relationship with the Australians. During the last six months I have distanced myself much more from my day-to-day friends ”.
“When social interactions moved to the internet, only certain types of relationships seemed to survive,” explains Bower.
Once the local or community context is removed, remain or strengthen the relationships in which heas people they had something in common besides work or hobbies, and in which everyone is comfortable with digital technology.
Many wanted to share their pandemic stress with those with whom they felt closest; old friends from home towns and very close local friends.
“Since most social interaction has happened online, socializing with people who live locally has been as easy as socializing with people who live on the other side of the world. This meant that people have been able to socialize and reconnect with people they were closest to, regardless of their location, ”he says.
Contemporary society is often defined by the movement of people away from their place of origin, adds Patulny.
“You are closer to the people who live on the other side of the planet, because they are the ones you grew up with. You are not necessarily close to those with whom you share a neighborhood. Covid-19 is really showing this, ”he says
However, we also miss interactions with those with whom we are not friendly enough to build a relationship online during the pandemic.
According to Patulny and Bower, many people said they have lost these micro-interactions with people in their communities, which are almost impossible to facilitate through digital communication.
“The ability to just stop, gossip, laugh, joke, and all the things you do outside of meetings, that doesn’t happen when you’re meeting online,” says Patulny. “The additional peripheral contact has been lost, and that’s a major loss.”
There is a risk that social ties will deteriorate without these small interactions, he says, as they help people connect.
As for whether we can return to these friendships after the pandemic, Bower points to recent evidence from the UK suggesting that people who felt lonely before would probably feel a bit more lonely laterwhile others did not experience long-term changes.
However, he expresses some concern that a prolonged period of solitude for some people could make small interactions feel more challenging in the long run.
“People who experience loneliness for prolonged periods begin to experience persistent negative impacts on the way they think and act in social situations – they are more hyper-vigilant about rejection, more socially anxious – and this can make these simple and less it’ll probably work out, ”says Bower.
Reverse or change
Bower and Patulny’s research will continue to analyze their study group as Australia continues its march to get out of covid-19 restrictions.
They will conduct a survey of the same sample every three months to determine how their behavior is changing and why, and they will send their results to a group of experts considering the mental health impacts of the pandemic.
It is too early for any estimate of long-term social changes, if any, but the researchers suggest that it might take a little time before interactions return to normal.
“I wonder if the fact that you are not used to socializing and that there is now a risk associated with socializing will lead to long-term impacts on the way we feel and how we can overcome loneliness,” says Bower.
Patuly says she wouldn’t be surprised by a slight increase in loneliness for a few years.
However, Michelle Lim, the loneliness expert, believes that for most people, both the loss of micro-interactions and the narrowing of their social networks are temporary, directly linked to the public health emergency, and unlikely to last. more than her.
“Yes [el aislamiento] it will be significantly damaging to relationships will depend on many factors: whether the individual is resilient, whether they have strong social networks, whether they strive to maintain their friendships despite these barriers, ”says Lim.
It’s also unclear, he adds, whether longer lockdowns, either by government mandate or due to people’s need to protect themselves from pre-existing health conditions, will lead to different or more pronounced outcomes.
Lim says it is possible that, in the immediate future, face-to-face interactions could change if we remain concerned about public health.
But he also says that it is part of human nature to return to social groups. Most of the people who have broken the lockdown rules have done so to see friends and family.
After we recover from the impact of these altered behaviors, he thinks things are likely to go back to normal.
The main determinants of loneliness are quite stable, he adds.
Those who weren’t alone before covid-19 are unlikely to feel very lonely in the long run once it’s all over.
“I think that for a short time there will be changes,” he says. But we are creatures of habit. Unless these behaviors are very, very long term, I think we will go back to our social groups. “
* This note is a translation of an original article published in English on BBC Worklife and that you can read here.