Social isolation and loneliness
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2023) Social isolation and loneliness, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 09 December 2023.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2023). Social isolation and loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness
Social isolation and loneliness. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 07 September 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Social isolation and loneliness [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2023 [cited 2023 Dec. 9]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2023, Social isolation and loneliness, viewed 9 December 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness
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Social isolation and loneliness can be harmful to both mental and physical health. They are considered substantial health and wellbeing issues in Australia because of the impact they have on peoples' lives. Some of the measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as physical isolation and lockdowns, may have exacerbated pre-existing risk factors for social isolation and loneliness, such as living alone (Lim et al. in press). Information on loneliness associated with the pandemic may also be found on AIHW's suicide and self-harm monitoring website.
Difference between social isolation and loneliness
Social isolation 'means having objectively few social relationships or roles and infrequent social contact' (Badcock et al. 2022:18). It differs from loneliness, which is a 'subjective unpleasant or distressing feeling of a lack of connection to other people, along with a desire for more, or more satisfying, social relationships' (Badcock et al. 2022:18). The 2 concepts may, but do not necessarily, co-exist – a person may be socially isolated but not lonely, or socially connected but feel lonely (Badcock et al. 2022; Relationships Australia 2018).
Loneliness among Australians was already a concerning issue prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, described both as an 'epidemic' and as one of the most pressing public health concerns in Australia (Ending Loneliness Together 2022). Data from the longitudinal Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey shows that, consistently from 2001 to 2021, about 1 in 5 Australians agreed with the statement 'I often feel very lonely'.
Social isolation and loneliness a risk for premature death
The risk of premature death associated with social isolation and loneliness is similar to the risk of premature death associated with well-known risk factors such as obesity, based on a meta-analysis of research in Europe, North American, Asia and Australia (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015).
An increasing number of people aged under 24, especially females, have reported experiencing loneliness since 2015. According to AIHW analysis of the HILDA Survey data, more than 1 in 4 women aged 18–24 agreed with the statement ‘I often feel very lonely’ in 2021, an increase from less than
1 in 5 in 2015.
COVID-19 Impact Monitoring data showed that in April 2020, during the nation-wide lockdown, almost half (46%) of respondents reported feeling lonely at least some of the time in the past week – the highest level recorded since the start of the pandemic (Biddle et al. 2022). Loneliness has generally declined since the early 2020 nation-wide lockdown, fluctuating slightly in the 2 years since, however by October 2022 more than one-third (36%) of Australian adults reported experiencing loneliness at least some of the time in the week prior to the survey. Throughout the pandemic, people aged 18–24 years had the highest levels of loneliness (Biddle and Gray 2022).
Australia lacks comparable data on loneliness that would allow for reliable international comparisons. Recently, a systematic worldwide review of loneliness was conducted across 113 countries, led by Australian researchers. Australia was not able to be compared with other countries, due to lack of comparable prevalence data, except for people aged 12–17 (Surkalim et al. 2022). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has no comparable data for Australia on its measures of ‘people feeling lonely’ and ‘people feeling left out of society’ (OECD 2022).
The frequency of social contact has been declining across all age groups in Australia for decades, with data from the HILDA survey showing a relative decline of 11% overall from 2001 to 2020 (Figure 1). Although people aged 15–24 have the highest frequency of social contact overall, on average, getting together with others about once a week, they have also shown the greatest relative decline (17%) over this period (Botha 2022). People completing surveys may define ‘social contact’ differently, for example, some people may consider online contact, including via text only, as social contact, while others may not. As such, the extent of social isolation may vary between studies, depending on how social isolation is defined.
Figure 1: Average frequency of social contact, by age group, 2001 to 2021
Line graph showing the average frequency of social contact from 2011 to 2021 by age group. Frequency of social contact has declined across all age groups, with a marked drop from 2019 to 2020, especially among people aged 15–24. Frequency of social contact continued to decrease in all age groups in 2021.
Note: Scoring is reversed from the corresponding HILDA variable (_LSSOCAL). Higher numbers correspond with higher frequency of social contact.
Source: Adapted from Figure 10.2, Botha 2022. Additional analysis by AIHW.
Data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, which follows two cohorts of young people across time, shows a similar picture. In 2020, the younger cohort, aged 16–17 at the time, reported a higher level of loneliness than the older cohort, aged 18–19. Females also reported a higher level of loneliness than males. For social support, results showed an increase during the study period. Compared to males, females reported a higher level of social support. With the few time points available, it is challenging to differentiate between the effects of age, period and cohort. It is unclear if these results may be related to a gender bias found in some studies, where females may be more comfortable expressing loneliness and receiving support compared with males (Baretto et al. 2021).
Whether social media has potential benefits or negative impacts on people's experiences of social isolation has been discussed since the advent of this medium. There is no straightforward relationship, however, between social media use and experiences of social isolation and loneliness, whether positive or negative.
Researchers have identified some positive impacts of how social media can help people feel socially connected, especially adolescents (aged 11–19) who are looking for peers online to boost their psychosocial wellbeing, discuss identity development and encourage a sense of belonging (Allen et al. 2014). Other research has showed that using social media benefited young people (aged under 21) who experienced higher levels of social anxiety by increasing their ability to socialise, reducing their feelings of social isolation (Lin et al. 2017).
Even though adolescents can use social media to create supportive communities, research shows that the relationship between its use and loneliness can be dynamic and bidirectional. When it is used to escape physical social interactions, feelings of loneliness were found to increase (Nowland et al. 2017). Further, Nowland and colleagues (2017) posited that people experiencing loneliness may benefit from external support with their use of the Internet to ensure they engage in existing friendships and learn how to develop new ones online to reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
More research has emerged since the pandemic started that investigates the use of social media by people of all ages and their experiences of social isolation, but findings are not always positive. For example, a study of people living in Norway, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Australia looked at the impact of people's use of social media during the pandemic. The researchers found an association between emotional distress and more frequent use of social media (Geirdal et al. 2021).
Another international study investigating current research between online social networking and mental health outcomes for people aged 50 and over found that social media enhanced communication with family and friends, provided greater independence and self-efficacy, aided in the creation of new communities online, helped to form positive associations with wellbeing and life satisfaction, and was associated with decreased depressive symptoms (Chen et al. 2021).
As more studies are conducted through the pandemic and beyond, an understanding of how social media affects feelings of social isolation and loneliness should become clearer.
Participating in paid work and caring for others are important safeguards against loneliness. Engaging in volunteer work and maintaining active memberships of sporting or community organisations are also associated with reduced social isolation (Flood 2005). However, it is unclear whether community engagement can consistently act as a protective factor against loneliness. For example, one study found that loneliness is lower in people who spend at least some time each week volunteering (Flood 2005), while another study found no relationship between loneliness and volunteering, socialising and participating in sport and community organisations (Baker 2012).
For those aged 25–44, being in a relationship is a greater protective factor against loneliness for men than for women (Baker 2012). Women living with others and women living alone report similar levels of loneliness, while men living alone report higher levels of loneliness than those living with others (Flood 2005). During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living with family reported less loneliness compared with people in other living situations (Lim et al. 2020).
Pets can play an integral part in people's lives regardless of culture, profession, or age. Companion animals have been found to bring substantial health benefits to people both physically and mentally. Multiple studies have found an association between pet ownership and lower experiences of social isolation, particularly for children (Hartwig and Signal 2020; Kretzler et al. 2022). Owning a pet increases the opportunity for people to get to know their neighbours and for social interactions and forming friendships (Wood et al. 2015). All types of companion animals may contribute to reducing social isolation and feelings of loneliness (Brooks et al. 2018; Kretzler et al. 2022).
After the outbreak of COVID-19, studies mostly demonstrated that the relationship between people and their companion animals had strengthened and pets continue to decrease people's experiences of social isolation (Kretzler et al. 2022). It is not yet clear whether this strong relationship between people and their pets at the levels seen in the early years of the pandemic will persist in the future (Hughes et al. 2021).
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