Loneliness and Social Distancing Research Study Overview




Hi everybody. I'm Dr. Katie Lewis and I'm the research psychologist at the Austen Riggs Center and I'm here to talk to you today about a new study I've launched through Austen Riggs that is trying to understand experiences of loneliness in individuals who are going through periods of time spent in social distancing.


Social distancing, as we’re all aware, is a public health intervention that has been really widely implemented to try to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and these sort of create the circumstances for greater social isolation for many individuals and, with that, concerns about increases in loneliness.

Loneliness is widely known to be a major public health issue. People who are chronically lonely are known to have higher rates of depression and anxiety and substance use and also physical health issues like high rates of cardiovascular disease, sleep issues, compromised immune systems.

It's really worth spending the time to try to understand how the current practice of social distancing is impacting people's sense of loneliness, how this is changing over time, and what sorts of psychological and situational factors are related to experiences of loneliness.

The effects of chronic loneliness.


In my study, which involves participants joining the study through their smartphones, there's a secure app that participants download for the period of the time in the study that collects data on changes in their experiences of loneliness over an 8 week period. And with that we are trying to assess other psychological factors like people’s general attitudes about relationships: whether they–in their everyday lives–tend to turn to relationships for a sense of emotional stability and well-being or if they're people who might be more disengaged from relationships and not really place much emphasis on relationships in terms of their own sense of self-esteem and sense of well-being on a daily basis.

My hypothesis is that social distancing is likely to affect feelings of loneliness in those two groups very differently. I’m also interested in understanding something about boredom proneness–whether people feel like, on average, over time they're able to spend their days in ways that feel useful and meaningful versus sort of spinning their wheels and not feeling like they're really doing much that’s valuable with their time. Having a sense of this would impact the degree to which loneliness becomes a salient experience for these people. And then just to track general psychiatric symptoms like depression and anxiety.

I’m also interested in looking at situational factors like a degree of contact and frequency of contact with social context outside of the household–how often people are engaging in phone calls or video conferencing or texting with friends and family members and trying to understand something about how people's work situations–whether they're still having to report to their job and having contact with people there and a sense a schedule that might confer a sense of normalcy verses adding extra stress because it’s anxiety provoking to be out in the world right now.

So just trying to understand how these different situational and psychological factors are related to loneliness, how loneliness is changing over time for people, and whether there are any sort of negative mental health outcomes that are related to loneliness in individuals at the moment.

An overview of what the Loneliness and Social Distancing Study will look at.


I could use your help with this study. It is open to pretty much everybody–it's open to adults, anybody over the age of 18 currently living in the United States who has access to a smartphone. And we’re really interested in hearing from as wide of an array of people as possible.

Again, this is unprecedented times in a new area and we really don’t know whether prior research is going to generalize to current experiences. So we really are looking at this as an opportunity to build a knowledge base from the ground up and could use your help.

So please share with anybody that might be interested, encourage them to reach out to me with any questions, and I look forward to being able to hopefully share the results of this of the study in the near future and then share our findings and the ways that we think our findings will be able to inform public health interventions in the future. Thank you.

Sign up to participate in a social distancing research study.

This research, which was funded through the Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center, is being conducted in compliance with the Center's Institutional Review Board (IRB) standards to ensure the confidentiality and ethical use of the research information. Data gathered for the initiative will only be accessible to Dr. Lewis and other approved Austen Riggs research support staff.

Related Blogs