When millions of people suddenly found themselves working from home and arguing over the meaning or absurdity of strict lockdowns, many more pandemics were diagnosed as a result of the virus. For example, in the public debate the opinion has prevailed here and there that Corona increases feelings of loneliness to an alarming extent. In the weeks leading up to the first pandemic Christmas of 2020, for example, stories of depressing holidays, in which people isolated from loved ones sink into loneliness, exploded. In many individual cases, this may have been the case. But what about on a societal level, has the corona pandemic really led to a pandemic of loneliness? A current meta-analysis by researchers led by Mareike Ernst of the University of Mainz gives an answer on several levels: yes, there were effects to be observed. But these are apparently not particularly important and sometimes contradictory. Talk of a pandemic of loneliness is “probably overstated”, they write in the newspaper american psychologist. “There is an increase, but not as much as is often claimed,” says lead author Ernst.
The scientists evaluated 34 individual studies in which more than 200,000 subjects had participated. The researchers attached great importance to the use of high-quality studies, in particular so-called longitudinal studies, for which measurements are collected several times over a period of time – in this case before the pandemic and during the pandemic. . This was necessary, says Manfred Beutel of the University of Mainz, who also participated in the study, “because previous results on loneliness in the pandemic were extremely contradictory”. Some studies observed an increase, others found no significant change, and still others even seemed to diagnose a decrease in feelings of loneliness. “The results differed,” Ernst says.
Loneliness means something different to laymen than to scientists
In the current analysis, researchers have now identified a small but significant increase in feelings of loneliness. Ernst’s team puts this at around 5% compared to the pre-pandemic period. In quantitative terms, that’s not a big leap, but epidemiological studies rarely show major effects, Beutel says, “in that regard, it’s relevant.” Above all, people are affected in varying degrees, according to Ernst. Based on the assessed studies, scientists cannot make any clear statements about who was particularly affected by loneliness during the pandemic. It is generally recognized that the risk of loneliness is highest during the transition to adulthood and in the last years of a person’s life. How is the risk of a pandemic distributed among different population groups? One can only speculate on this. “The home office can also have positive effects,” says Ernst. For example, through closer contact with family, partner, children. It’s probably different among students, said Beutel, whose access to the social environment has been cut off by corona restrictions. For an exact analysis, however, data on individual subgroups is lacking.
There could be a simple reason why the public debate sometimes spoke of a pandemic of loneliness that plagued almost all segments of the population: the secular understanding of loneliness does not correspond to the scientific use of the term. “Social isolation is a risk factor for loneliness, but it’s not the same thing,” says Ernst. Being alone doesn’t necessarily make you feel alone. On the contrary, feeling arises when our own demands for social contact are not satisfied, when these are not sufficient, when they do not provide satisfaction or meaning. It is therefore also possible to feel alone among people. And everyone works differently: for example, a German study showed that extroverts felt particularly lonely during the pandemic.
It is apparently not so easy to tell whether the observed increase in feelings of loneliness in the pandemic is a negative sign in itself. “First of all, loneliness isn’t inherently a bad thing, Ernst says. It’s a signal that something needs to change.” It is only when loneliness becomes chronic that it becomes a burden and a risk to physical and mental health and premature death. For this reason alone, the phenomenon must continue to be closely monitored.