Why old tech tools are better at curbing loneliness in a pandemic

Phone calls and email beat out video chats for making people feel better, new study finds

In a battle between old tech versus new, phone calls and emails proved more helpful for lessening loneliness, isolation and stress than video chats, social media and interactive video games during the pandemic, according to a new study in the journal Human Communication and Technology.

“Voice calls were associated with less stress, loneliness and relationship maintenance difficulties, while video chat was positively associated with all three,” according to Connecting During COVID-19, by researchers from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the University of Kansas and Michigan State University.

The researchers figured — probably like most people — the cool newer tools like multipeople videoconferencing that let people watch movies together or grandma read bedtime stories to toddlers would alleviate stress and loneliness. They were surprised that phone calls and emails proved better.

Of the nearly 2,000 people in the nationally representative survey, conducted in May 2020, 90% said they followed shelter-in-place orders. The main predictor of whether they felt lonely or had their social need met was face-to-face contact with friends and family.

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2020 was a year that included “dozens of Zoom meetings, hundreds of phone calls and text messages, thousands of online gaming hours and millions of social media posts,” according to background material from the University of Nevada Las Vegas on the study, which found the new tech “didn’t stack up well” against old tech.

Age, relationship status and living arrangements were the most relevant factors in terms of how technology helped or hurt during the pandemic, said Natalie Pennington, University of Nevada Las Vegas communications studies professor and social media expert.

Those most affected by isolation and stress during the pandemic appeared to be young adults, 18-29. Pennington and her co-authors theorized that older adults are more used to being isolated socially, while youthful adults are more used to going out with friends, interacting at work and just getting out of the house.

Among the study highlights Pennington noted:

  • Phone calls and texting provided the most used and most important communication.
  • Video chats were linked to more stress, loneliness and relationship trouble.
  • Social media posts, comments and shares were more strongly associated with stress.
  • Those happily paired romantically and not using social media reported less loneliness and stress than those not in a relationship and those in a relationship using social media.
  • Email decreased loneliness for middle-aged and older adults, but increased it for those younger than 29 — perhaps because they associate it with work.

Loneliness and stress

There’s no question folks have reached out to others during COVID-19. The study said that early in the pandemic, internet, cell phone and internet providers, video chat companies and medial platforms reported “huge” spikes in traffic.

People seem to know instinctively that they need human connection — a fact science backs up.

Being — and especially feeling — alone creates health issues, boosting anxiety and depression, Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Weill Cornell School of Medicine, told the Deseret News recently. “Loneliness definitely affects immunity, it affects the cardiovascular system. One can become physically ill from ongoing, intense feelings of loneliness,” she warned.

Research by the late John Cacioppo, who co-wrote the book “Loneliness,” found about 1 in 4 Americans are really lonely. He and co-author William Patrick called loneliness a “prompt, like hunger, thirst or physical pain — to motivate us to renew the connections we need to survive and prosper.”

The Deseret News explored loneliness in the series, “Living Lonely.” Patrick, a science writer, said then that mankind always finds safety in numbers. “Being isolated, having connections frayed or severed, is the scariest thing there is. That’s why the most severe punishment, short of capital punishment, is solitary confinement.”

But those who need connections the most are often the most afraid or unable to forge them, Patrick noted.

How much people suffer from being isolated is partly determined by genetics, but the physical and psychological impact is still quantifiable, Cacioppo and Patrick wrote. “Loneliness depresses the immune system, hampers sleep quality and contributes to impulsive behavior and substance abuse. It may be a factor in dementia. Loneliness can change gene expression and rev up inflammation. It may change the body’s response to bacteria, viruses and glucose. Stress becomes less manageable; fatigue may grow.”

While the pandemic has increased mental health issues, teens are one group who may have benefitted in some relevant ways to changes made in response. In Teens in Quarantine: Mental Health, Screen Time and Family Connection, a study by Brigham Young University and the Institute for Family Studies, researchers said teens have been able to sleep in instead of getting up early to get to school. And they’ve had more quality time with family members. Those factors likely contributed to the finding that teen mental health dipped less than that for adults, overall.

That study concluded depression and loneliness decreased somewhat during the coronavirus quarantine for teens, compared to levels in pre-pandemic 2018, while unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life rose slightly.

A study in Perspectives on Psychological Science suggests loneliness can prompt people to make friends or forge new connections.

Nor is loneliness solely the product of the pandemic, though that could have increased loneliness. As the Deseret News series noted, a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons found people a quarter-century ago had three close friends in whom to confide, while by 2010 the most frequently provided answer was “zero.” And a third of Americans 45 and older said they were lonely.

Staying connected matters. The question has been how to accomplish it.

Finding your way

“Technology can help us, but it does force us to be creative in ways that we might not think of right away,” Pennington said in study background material. “One of the biggest things that helps is talking and thinking about and doing other things — family game nights, family dinners, having fun with people during online Netflix parties or just video chatting with people for a purpose and not talking about the pandemic.”

In late March, she plans to present at the Central States Communication Association Conference her findings on loneliness from two related studies.

The new study said phone calls might be the least stressful communication method because people can multitask, while video chats force someone to sit down and focus on the screen.

And there could be another downside to video chats, which in theory would seem like the best tool because it’s more like being together. Pennington thinks that could increase sadness, an “almost-but-not-quite” feeling that boosts pining for human contact.

She told the Deseret News she was surprised that video chat was associated with elevated stress and loneliness. “Past research ... would predict the opposite; that as a rich medium full of all kinds of cues — context, visual, audio — that I should probably get the most out of video chat,” she said. Instead, they found “video calls can be really taxing to participate in — and not everyone is comfortable with them.”

As for social media posts, they amp up stress considerably — and there could be several reasons. Pennington thinks that might be due in part to what research call doomscrolling,” which is a mindless habit of scrolling through bad news on a social media feed.

Social media plays a role in how couples manage, too, by adding stress and boosting loneliness. People with romantic partners are less stressed and lonely than those without partners — unless the partner uses social media regularly. That amps up related stress. Someone who has no romantic partner and doesn’t use social media falls somewhere between those who are romantically paired.

That finding didn’t surprise Pennington, who said that social media can elevate jealousy and uncertainty, especially for people who can’t physically spend time together. In another study, a college student recounted her boyfriend breaking up with her because she wouldn’t go out and was thus, presumably, a drag. Pennington speculates that “in some cases, disagreements about sheltering in place and seeing your partner out and about while you aren’t could easily perpetuate stress in the relationship” as well.

While being cooped up for too long with others could lead to “relational burnout,” Pennington said her research group didn’t find an association between living alone and loneliness or trouble keeping relationships going.

Her advice is for people to “pick the technology you are comfortable with, but also focus on connecting. Don’t just browse social media; it’s isn’t that great for you.” And, she adds, “if you don’t feel up to a video chat, don’t schedule one, because they are work. Instead, make a phone call for a pick-me-up or text someone and say hello.”