Social isolation and loneliness can be harmful to both mental and physical health. They are considered significant health and wellbeing issues in Australia because of the impact they have on peoples’ lives. Part of the challenge in reporting on social isolation and loneliness stems from a lack of information about these experiences and a lack of universally-agreed upon definitions. Some of the measures implemented to manage the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, such as physical isolation and lockdowns, have had the potential to exacerbate pre-existing risk factors for social isolation and loneliness, such as living alone. Information on loneliness associated with COVID-19 may also be found on AIHW’s suicide and self-harm monitoring website.

Difference between social isolation and loneliness

Social isolation is seen as the state of having minimal contact with others. It differs from loneliness, which is a subjective state of negative feelings about having a lower level of social contact than desired (Peplau & Perlman 1982). Some definitions include loneliness as a form of social isolation (Hawthorne 2006) while others state that loneliness is an emotional reaction to social isolation (Heinrich & Gullone 2006). The two concepts do not necessarily co-exist—a person may be socially isolated but not lonely, or socially connected but feel lonely (Australian Psychological Society 2018; Relationships Australia 2018).

Number of people who experience loneliness and social isolation

Most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives (Relationships Australia 2018). An estimated
1 in 3 (33%) Australians reported an episode of loneliness between 2001 and 2009, with 40% of these people experiencing more than 1 episode, according to a study of loneliness using data from the longitudinal Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey (Baker 2012).

In surveys undertaken since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over half (54%) of respondents reported that they felt more lonely since the start of the pandemic (Lim et al. 2020).

In its longitudinal study, COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program conducted by the Australian National University, Australians were asked the question ‘In the past week, how often have you felt lonely?’. The respondents could answer from the following four options: rarely or none of the time, some or little of the time, occasionally or moderate amount of time and most or all of the time.  In the various survey waves conducted in 2020 and 2021 the overall loneliness rates have fluctuated with the extent and impact of COVID-19-related restrictions.

  • In April 2020, almost half (46%) of respondents reported that they felt lonely during the past week (Biddle et al. 2020a), and 40% reported an increase in the amount of time they felt socially isolated and lonely since March 2020 (Biddle et al. 2020c).
  • In May 2020, the proportion of respondents feeling lonely was just over one-third (36%) (Biddle et al. 2020a), and in November 2020 was 35% (Biddle et al. 2020d).
  • In January 2021, the proportion of respondents who reported experiencing loneliness remained similar to recent collection months at 36% (Biddle & Gray 2021a).

The survey found the largest proportion of people who had experienced the highest levels of loneliness 'most of the time' and 'occasionally' during the past week were 18–24 year olds in the 4 analysed months (i.e. April 2020, August 2020, April 2021 and August 2021). The highest proportion of respondents who reported the 2 lower levels of loneliness 'some of the time' and 'rarely' in August 2021 were aged 25–34 (28%) and 45–54 (68%) respectively (Figure 1). Young people were more likely than other age groups to have felt higher levels of loneliness throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The proportion of respondents aged 18–24 who experienced loneliness most or all of the time decreased from April 2020 (12%) to April 2021 (9%), but increased in August 2021 (14%).
  • The proportion of respondents aged 18–24 who experienced loneliness occasionally or moderate amount of time increased from April 2020 (20%) to April 2021 (22%), but decreased in August 2021 (16%).
  • The proportion of respondents aged 18–24 who experienced loneliness some or little of the time decreased from April 2020 (32%) to April 2021 (28%) and further decreased in August 2021 (26%). 

This vertical bar chart shows the percent of people reporting loneliness during the past week by age in April 2020, August 2020,April 2021 and August 2021. People aged 18 to 24 years reported loneliness rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day) increased from 35.1% in April 2020 to 44.1% in August 2021. People aged 25 to 34 years reported loneliness some or a little of the time (1 to 2 days) decreased from 28.5% in April 2020 to 28.2% in August 2021. People aged 35 to 44 years reported loneliness occasionally or a moderate amount of time (3 to 4 days) decreased from 10.9% in April 2020 to 10.1% in August 2021. People aged 45 to 54 years reported loneliness most of the time (5 to 7 days) increased from 3.4% in April 2020 to 5.3% in August 2021.

Social isolation declined from the height of the initial COVID-related restrictions that were in place in 2020.
In April 2020, almost half (49%) of Australian respondents said that they had not met with anyone socially since the onset of the pandemic. This reduced to 6.8% in November 2020, but was still higher than levels of social isolation reported pre-pandemic in February 2020 (2.0%) (Biddle et al. 2020d).

Restrictions in place as result of the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in Australia in 2021 are likely to continue to impact people’s feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

Risk factors for social isolation and loneliness

Although there is no guarantee that an individual’s family household composition will either lead to or protect against loneliness, some living situations are more likely to be associated with loneliness than others.

According to the 2016 Census of Population and Housing, 25% of Australian households are lone person households and 71% are family households. Of family households, 45% consisted of a couple with children, 38% a couple without children and 16% were a one-parent family with one or more children (ABS 2016).

Living alone and not being in a relationship with a partner are substantial risk factors for both social isolation and loneliness (Flood 2005; Lauder et al. 2004; Relationships Australia 2011). Relationship separation tends to result in an increase in loneliness across ages and genders, however, the effects are more pronounced for men than women. Recently separated men are over 13 times as likely to develop loneliness than married men, as opposed to twice as likely for separated women compared with married women (Franklin & Tranter 2008).

Relationship status and household composition can also be a risk factor for loneliness. Compared to other household compositions and relationship status’, single parents experienced the highest rate of social isolation. Among single parents, males experienced almost twice the rate of social isolation than females (38% and 18% respectively). Following single parents, single adults without children reported high rates of social isolation (15% males and 13% females), followed by couples with children and couples without children (7% for both males and females).

Unemployment, receiving income support (Relationships Australia 2018) and lack of satisfaction with financial situation (Baker 2012) are also factors involved in the development of loneliness across age groups and gender. Loneliness can be self-reinforcing if it is associated with an experience of depression and anxiety, particularly around social interactions (Australian Psychological Society 2018).

Many people reported that they were experiencing more social isolation and loneliness as lockdown restrictions came into effect from March 2020. Although most regions of Australia reported improvements as lockdown measures began to ease in May, Victorians reported a relative worsening of loneliness between May and August 2020, associated with its ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 cases (Biddle et al. 2020c). In October 2020, before the second lockdown was lifted, Victorians were more than twice as likely to report experiencing loneliness (33%) as Australians residing in other states (13%) (ABS 2020) (Figure 2).
 

This horizontal bar chart shows the percent of people reporting loneliness during the last four weeks by risk factors Household status and Location in October 2020. Lone persons reported the highest level of loneliness 29.3% followed by family with children 15.6% and family without children 13.6%. People in Victoria reported the highest level of loneliness 32.6% followed by people in New South Wales 14.6% and the rest of Australia 12.5%.

Social media

The relationship between social media and loneliness is complex and depends on the individual and their life circumstances. Users of social media experiencing loneliness have reported increased use of social media to communicate with family and friends (Relationships Australia 2011), while at the same time reporting fewer online ‘friends’ and being less likely to consider these as real friends than users who are not experiencing loneliness (Baker 2012). Others argued that online socialising can increase levels of loneliness as these relationships are generally fragile and shallow (Franklin 2009). The number of online friends appears less important than the quality and strength of the relationships.

Use of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic has been similarly complex and the evidence on its impact is still emerging. The use of digital technology was promoted during lockdowns in 2020 to alleviate loneliness, however excessive social media use is associated with higher levels of anxiety (Boursier et al. 2020). Emerging evidence suggests social media use may be a helpful coping strategy for adolescents (Cauberghe et al. 2020).

Impact of social isolation and loneliness 

Loneliness has been linked to premature death (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015), poor physical and mental health (Australian Psychological Society 2018; Relationships Australia 2018), and general dissatisfaction with life (Schumaker et al. 1993).

Social isolation has also been linked to mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, the development of dementia, premature death, poor health behaviours, smoking, physical inactivity, poor sleep, and biological effects, including high blood pressure and poorer immune function (Hawthorne 2006; Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015). Social isolation is also associated with sustained decreases in feelings of wellbeing (Shankar et al. 2015) and life satisfaction (Biddle et al. 2020c). Conversely, more frequent social contact is associated with higher life satisfaction and overall health (Wilkins et al. 2020).

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).

Who experiences social isolation and/or loneliness?

Social isolation and loneliness vary across age groups. Loneliness tends to be more common in young adults, males, those living alone and those with children, either singly or in a couple (Baker 2012).

Loneliness has had clear impact on both levels of psychological distress and life satisfaction during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a regression analysis by Biddle et al. (2020d) (that controlled for psychological distress in April) those reporting they felt lonely either some, occasionally or most of the time all had significantly higher levels of psychological distress in November 2020 compared to April 2020. This suggests that loneliness has been contributing to levels of psychological distress.

Increased loneliness is also a strong predictor of psychological distress even when other factors like changes in employment status are controlled for. Pre-pandemic, men tended to report higher levels of loneliness than women (Flood 2005; Relationships Australia 2018). In a study using HILDA data, among adults aged 25–44, more men living alone experienced loneliness (39%) than women living alone (12%) (Baker 2012). However, more women reported experiencing loneliness than men during the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that remained consistent from May 2020 to October 2020 (Figure 3).
 

This horizontal bar chart shows the percent of people reporting loneliness during the last four weeks by age and sex in May, June and October 2020. People reporting the highest level of loneliness in May, 28% of females and 22.5% of 18 to 64 years old reported feeling lonely. The lowest levels of loneliness were reported in June, 8.2% of males and 9% of 65 years and over reported feeling lonely. The levels of loneliness increased in October, 20.5% of 18 to 64 years old and 20.3% of females reported feeling lonely.  

Studies investigating the relationship between age and loneliness often have contradictory findings, likely related to differences in study methods and sample variations. Some studies find higher levels of loneliness among older people (Relationships Australia 2018) while others find lower levels in these age groups (Relationships Australia 2011). Rates of loneliness may also vary according to relationship status, with another study finding that Australians aged over 65 who are married experience the lowest levels of loneliness (Australian Psychological Society 2018).

The relationship between income and loneliness varies depending on age and gender. For example, men aged 25–44 on high incomes are more likely to be lonely, while women of all ages on low incomes are far more likely to be lonely than those women on high incomes (Baker 2012).

There are few differences in loneliness levels of Australians living in urban, regional and rural areas (Baker 2012). Young men who live in regional areas, however, experience higher rates of loneliness than men in Major cities (Relationships Australia 2018).

With restrictions of household visits, living with family has emerged as a protective factor from experiencing loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic (Lim et al. 2020). A greater proportion of young people live alone than other age groups, which leaves them more vulnerable to social isolation (Kabátek 2020). For example, even as widespread movement restrictions eased in May 2020, people aged 18–24 continued to experience high rates of loneliness, while rates improved for other age groups (Biddle et al. 2020a).

Prevention and reduction of social isolation and loneliness

Having 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).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of adult Australians doing voluntary work in the previous 12-months decreased from 36% in late 2019 to 24% in April 2021. In the Analysis by Biddle & Gray (2021b), it was reported that those who stopped volunteering were far more likely to say that they felt lonely at least some of the time in the previous four weeks than those who continued volunteering. In April 2020, 54% of Australians who stopped volunteering due to COVID-19 and did not start volunteering again reported that they were lonely at least some of the time, which decreased to just over 40% in April 2021 (Biddle & Gray 2021b).

Companion animals

In 2018, 62% (5.7 million) of Australian households owned a pet, with the two most common types of pet being dogs (48%) and cats (37%) (Wilkins et al. 2020). Around two-thirds of dog and cat owners reported ‘Companionship’ as a reason for owning a pet and a similar proportion consider their pet a part of their family (Animal Medicines Australia 2016). Another survey found 60% of owners felt more socially connected as a direct result of owning a pet (Petplan Australia 2016). Pet ownership has been linked to increased social contact, for example, through facilitating contact with neighbours and acting as a trigger for conversations (Wood et al. 2015), which may help counter social isolation (McNicholas et al. 2005).

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).

Although social isolation and loneliness are now well-recognised public health concerns, there is little research into what works to resolve them (Smith & Lim 2020). One possible intervention is social prescribing, wherein patients are linked to social supports in their communities (Bickerdike et al. 2017)

Government initiatives

Awareness of loneliness and social isolation as significant public health and wellbeing issues has increased in recent years, along with the development of targeted government and community support programs for affected Australians. Australian, state and territory and local governments have all provided varying degrees of funding and support to local councils and community organisations for programs to address the social isolation and loneliness of Australians. For example, the Australian Government funds a national Community Visitors Scheme, which supports local organisations to recruit volunteers who provide regular visits to Australians in receipt of Commonwealth-subsidised aged care services (Department of Health 2020). The Seniors Connected Program encompasses two activity streams: existing phone support service delivered by Friends for Good (FriendLine); and Village Hub projects across Australia, which bring older Australians together to support good mental and physical health.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on social isolation and loneliness, see:

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