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Have you been using your phone and your computer more in pandemic? The paradox is that tech can make us more connected, but also more isolated. But are there circumstances in which tech actually brings us closer together? What lessons can we learn from this crisis as humans? What will this teach us about community, compassion and kindness? This week journalist Ginger Gorman chats with one of Australia’s best known psychologists and social researchers, Hugh Mackay, about loneliness and the digital age.
Ginger Gorman: Good day. You are listening to Seriously Social. This is the podcast where we use the lens of the social sciences to help us consider how COVID-19 is impacting Australian society, our relationships, human connections and societal structures. We get experts from the social sciences to help us delve into all those nagging pandemic questions. And to do that, I’m about to be joined by one of Australia’s most eminent psychologists and social researchers, Hugh Mackay.
But before we say hello to him, I should let you know that next week, on Wednesday, June 24, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia is hosting a fascinating symposium. It’s called Loneliness and the Digital Age and Hugh is a keynote speaker. So, if you’d like to hear more about whether technologies help address loneliness or make the problem worse, go to our website, socialsciences.org.au, and you can get all the information about our symposium there.
Now though, let’s get on with the show. Hugh Mackay, thank you so much for joining me.
Hugh Mackay: Great pleasure. Thank you, Ginger.
Ginger: Now, Hugh, this is the first podcast we’ve actually recorded face to face because of the pandemic and I’m very grateful to you for having me in your home. But we are managing to do this in a socially distant way. We’ve got lots of cables all around us and we’re quite far apart across the table. Tell me how the pandemic has affected you in terms of isolation.
Hugh: Well, there have been the obvious drawbacks. I don’t see my grandchildren. I don’t attend choir rehearsals, which were one of the highlights of my week. I don’t have coffee with friends. I don’t interact with shopkeepers because we really have been in total lockdown.
As far as working is concerned, it’s had no impact at all because as these days primarily a writer, I work from home anyway, so that hasn’t been difficult. It’s changed my wife’s working life a great deal. She’s now doing things via Zoom that she previously did face to face and of course, so am I. There’s a lot of Zooming going on. I’d never even heard of Zoom until COVID-19 hit us.
Ginger: What about the fact that she’s actually immune compromised? How has that impacted your ability, for example, to see your grandchildren?
Hugh: Well, it means it’s an absolute barrier. She is hyper-vulnerable to any kind of infection, let alone COVID-19. So, her rheumatologist has said no human contact until spring. So, that applies to me, of course. I have to keep as far away from everybody as I am from you now.
Ginger: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because we’re mainly here today to talk about loneliness and there’s been a lot of discussion about this since we’ve all been socially isolated in the pandemic. But in fact, Australia was a very lonely country even before COVID-19. What can you tell me about that?
Hugh: Yeah, I think this is a crucial point, Ginger. The fact that we’ve all been in lockdown has given us a little taste of loneliness, but the Australian Psychological Society in conjunction with Swinburn University of Technology about a year ago published a national survey, which was shocking in many respects.
And one of the most shocking findings was that 25% of all Australians report feeling lonely for most of every week. Now, that’s a stunning statistic, isn’t it? It means if you look along your street or within your apartment block, it’s a pretty safe bet that roughly a quarter of those people are experiencing loneliness regularly. And loneliness, of course, is like a disease.
In a sense, during COVID-19, we’ve been experiencing two pandemics, the virus itself, but also loneliness. We associate loneliness with anxiety and depression, but it’s also associated with other illnesses, like hypertension, like a negative effect on the immune system, sleep disturbances, cognitive decline, greater vulnerability to addictions of all kinds, especially alcohol and information technology.
Ginger: I did a story for the ABC about loneliness in older people relating to the pandemic and one of the experts said this is as deadly as smoking. I was shocked by that, but actually this makes sense, given what you’re saying now that it’s actually related to all these other health problems.
Hugh: That’s right. In fact, there are health professionals around the world now who are saying that social isolation is actually a greater threat to public health than obesity is. And that’s because of all of these health implications that flow if people are socially isolated to the point of feeling lonely.
Ginger: And I know some countries, I think the United Kingdom has even got a loneliness minister now. It was one of the first countries in the world to do that.
Let’s unpick this a bit, Hugh. Pre-pandemic, why were we all so bloody lonely? what’s happening to us?
Hugh: Yes. Well, this is a self-inflicted wound, Ginger. If you look at how Australian society has been changing over the last 30 or 40 years, really, it’s not overnight, most of the changes have been pushing us in the direction of becoming a more socially-fragmented society. And social fragmentation heightens the risk of social isolation.
Now, when I say changes, I mean things like our sustained higher divorce rate, our low birth rate. Kids often act as a social lubricant in the neighbourhood and they’re in shorter supply relative to total population than ever in our history. We’re all so busy. Busyness is the great barrier to social cohesion. “I haven’t got time for that. I haven’t got time for a drink with the neighbours. All too busy. I can’t get through everything I have to do.”
Information technology has had a fragmenting effect. It’s the great revolutionary paradox that said it’s going to make us all closer together, closely in touch with each other, which it has. And paradoxically, it’s made it easier than ever for us to stay apart from each other.
So, you put those kind of changes together plus our mobility. We’re moving house on average once every six years. We come and go by car. Most of us live in drive‑in, drive-out suburbs and don’t have much time for standing around chatting to neighbours. So, if you put that all together, the cumulative effect is more social fragmentation and a consequence of that is more people feeling lonely.
One other factor in all that that I failed to mention is our shrinking households, which in some ways is the most significant of all the social changes of the last half century. Every fourth household in Australia now contains just one person. And within the next 10 or 15 years, that will have got to every third household. Now, that doesn’t mean all those people are lonely, but it means the risk of loneliness is greatly increased.
Ginger: Hugh, as you say, we’ve got one in four people feeling lonely, which I just find staggering. Within that group, are there specific populations that are more at risk of loneliness than others?
Hugh: Yeah. The two most at-risk groups are elderly people who are living alone, and that’s pretty easy to understand because there’s increased frailty, decreased mobility, so they often are isolated by their aloneness and their age. The other at‑risk group are young people. It’s now become quite a useful label to say of young, heavy users of the Internet that they are connected, but lonely.
And this goes to the heart of one of the issues we’ll be discussing in next week’s symposium because obviously, the digital revolution is all about connection. It’s about other things as well, but socially, it’s all about connection. And yet, when human beings really communicate with each other in the way that you and I are communicating now, Ginger – as I said that, you were nodding, your eyebrows went up, you’re smiling now – I’m getting lots of very subtle and very useful cues from you and you’re getting some from me. I’m waving my hand around and I’m smiling at you.
Posture, gesture, fascial expression, rate of speech, tone of voice, this is all the rich material that we exchange when we’re communicating face to face. When we retreat to the telephone, we still get rate of speech and tone of voice and pregnant pauses and all that stuff. But when we move into digital communication, all of that subtlety, all of those nuances, all of the audio-visual material is stripped away. And now, we’re just left with the words. Emojis play their part, but I don’t think they turn us on quite the way.
Ginger: This is so interesting though because I did another investigation for the ABC about this specific group you’re talking about, so 18 to 24‑year‑olds. Right at the start of the pandemic, I investigated what was happening to them and they were losing their jobs, their casual employment, they were being forced to go home, back home to their parents after not being able to attend TAFE or university.
And they were saying this to me that, “I am now so isolated.” So, there was already a problem. Technology’s played a part in that and then, on top of it, we’re layering a pandemic. What do you think is happening to those young people right now in terms of loneliness?
Hugh: I think it’s a major social challenge that we’ll have to respond to. It’s true, of course that they’re constantly – they’ve probably got their smartphones under their pillows. They’re constantly attached, but what they are not getting is eye contact. What they’re not getting is touch and these are massive human depravations.
So, this is a generation we’re going to have to care for. And also, I think it’s fair to say it’s a generation that is going to be, to some extent, formed, shaped by the experience of living through this crisis.
Ginger: I’ve seen the sort of term, Generation COVID, bandied around and, in fact, Social Scientist, Dan Woodman, talked about that in one of the other episodes of Seriously Social. And he was saying there is going to be a Generation COVID that is, in a way, shaped by this pandemic. There are going to be social influences on them, much like people that lived through the Depression or people that lived through World War I or II. These huge forces do shape people. How?
Hugh: I did a lot of research over the years among older people as well as everyone, but particularly among older people reflecting on the experience of living through the Depression or World War II. And what they always said was, “This was a dreadful time and it was the making of us.”
Now, you wouldn’t wish this on your worst enemy, but it really clarified our values. We re-ordered our priorities. We really discovered the crucial importance of neighbourhood support, looking out for each other. In the Depression, that sometimes meant providing meals for neighbours and other very, very concrete, tangible forms of assistance.
But when they look back on that, they always said how fortunate they were to have had such a dramatic influence that created values and priorities that never left them. So, they were often mocked by their own children, particularly the Baby Boom generation, who didn’t have any of that kind of formation, in fact, quite the reverse, who mocked their parents for being so frugal, saving bits of string and son on.
This has been a shorter experience, but in some ways, an even more intense experience and I think it is going to shape this generation particularly in their acknowledgment of the crucial importance of togetherness.
Ginger: There are so many fascinating things in what you’ve just said. First of all, I want to ask you a kind of immediate question about it, which is are we seeing this kind of behaviour that you’re talking about? Are we seeing people caring for their neighbours? Are we seeing an enormous positive outcome of this, which is that that fragmentation that you were talking about before is almost being reversed in some ways?
Hugh: Yeah. I think it’s a silent revolution that’s happening, Ginger. And of course, it’s not universal. Now, there are exceptions to what I’m about to say, but for people who were not seriously ill or died as a result of it, there are obvious benefits from it and the most immediately obvious one is the revival of the neighbourhood.
Now, we were talking about that at-risk group of the young adults. I recently spoke to two young men, one from Melbourne, one from Sydney, who had each in their separate orbits, moved into new accommodation just before COVID-19 arrived. And they both told me a story of what they had done.
And in both cases, what they had done was put notes in the letterboxes of the people in their street to say, “Hey. I’ve just moved in. You don’t know me. Here’s my phone number. If you need a hand, if you need anyone to do some errands or go shopping or something else, just let me know. I’m here.” And I thought that was wonderful and I thought it was remarkable that they were from the very generation that we think of as they do it all in the digital space.
As soon as they were in a socially-challenging situation like this, their immediate response was the human response. “Hey, you know, we’re herd animals. We don’t like being cut off from the herd, but the only herd I’ve got now is the neighbourhood.” The re-emergence of the value we place on the neighbourhood and introducing ourselves to neighbours will be one of the great outcomes.
In Sydney and Melbourne, it had become a sort of urban cliché that we don’t know our neighbours. Now, no one ever says, “I don’t know my neighbours,” with pride or pleasure. They don’t say, “Wow! I finally achieved the situation I’ve been striving for where I wouldn’t know my neighbours.” They know there’s something weird about not knowing your neighbours.
Ginger: An what we’ve seen, like you’re saying is we’ve seen all these mutual age groups springing up on Facebook where very, very locally people are helping each other, delivering casseroles, picking up groceries, medications. When we weren’t recording this, telling me about people droppings lemons on each other’s doorsteps and things. These small things, which are reconnecting us to each other, it’s quite profound, actually.
Hugh: It is. Well, even in this apartment block where I live, we had a balcony choir a few weeks ago. One inspired gent a few doors along organised us all at a particular time. He organised the music and we were out on our balconies at dusk with candles, singing along. Now, we didn’t all know each other before that, but we sure know each other, at least by sight, now.
Ginger: What has that given you?
Hugh: An enormous sense of emotional security. And that’s the thing about the neighbourhood. We get it from families, we get it from our most intimate relationships, we get it from our friendship circles, we may get it from colleagues in a workplace, if it’s a harmonious workplace, which it not always is.
But because we are herd animals, the sense of the herd where we actually live, they’re not our best friends and they don’t ever have to become our best friends, but there is this special category called neighbour. And I think it’s one of our primary responsibilities as a citizen to act like a neighbour. And that just means be in touch. Let people know that you know they’re there. Acknowledge them. Whether you like them or not is irrelevant. Whether you agree with them or not has got nothing to do with it.
Neighbour is that special category. The neighbourhood is the one place in our lives where we’re obliged to get on with people we didn’t choose to live with. Now, it’s a great test of how civilised we are.
Ginger: When I was taking notes ahead of this interview, we had a chat on the phone and you said to me, “Compassion is one of the most important words in this conversation.” And it stuck with me because I actually wrote it on my notepad in block letters and I highlighted it in pink highlighter. Why did you say that?
Hugh: It’s the key word that really underlies this whole conversation, Ginger, because once you realise what it means to be a human being, once you realise what it means to belong to a social species then it’s a very short step to say, “Well, in that case, we belong to each other. We’re all one. We’re all part of this thing.” And we absolutely rely on groups, communities, neighbourhoods to support us, to nurture us, to sustain us, even to give us our sense of identity.
So, the only rational response – rational response, not an emotional response – the only rational response to that is to say, “We’d better treat each other kindly. We’d better treat each other respectfully,” because that’s how well build social cohesion. That’s how we’ll create social harmony and it will have nothing to do with our emotional response to each other.
That happens anyway. We fall in love. We like some people and we don’t like other people. Absolutely irrelevant to the concept of compassion. Compassion is the mental discipline that says, “Because I’m human, I’m going to treat you as if you’re human too.”
Ginger: Is this also a moment where we’re actually more compassionate to ourselves and we start asking, “Why the hell am I so busy? Why am I on this spinning wheel and what is the purpose of that?”
Hugh: Yes. Absolutely right. It would even change the way we greet each other, Ginger. We’ve become a society in which people would say, “How are you going? Busy?” as though, of course, you’ve got to be busy. Are you dead or are you busy? The switch is either on or off. There’s no in between.
Now, I was talking about the benefit of all the social isolation being the rediscovery of the neighbourhood. The other benefit is the one you’ve identified. I think for many of us, it’s been a time of unexpected opportunity for introspection. Even if that’s been triggered by frustration, eventually we start thinking, “Hey, actually, this isn’t all bad.”
A friend of mine recently wrote to me saying that her days are more expansive. I had an email just yesterday from someone saying that in his circle, people are saying, “We’ve slowed down and we rather like it.” And that word, ‘busyness’, is right at the heart of this because I think what people are realising when they’re forced not to be so busy is that they were running too hard and too mindlessly, that they were going too many places, they were buying too much stuff, they were taking too many trips. They were running too hard and for no real purpose and that in fact, life could be richer if it was a little calmer, less stressed and lived at a slightly slower pace.
We’re not all going to walk around in slow motion, of course. As we bounce forward, while we’re bouncing back after this, we are going to have to get back to a lot of our routines, but I think we’re going to be looking at it all from a different perspective. “Why do I have to do this? Is this necessary? I don’t have to fly to Melbourne to this meeting. We’ve discovered we can do it by Zoom.”
Ginger: Yeah. And you wrote this beautiful article, called Pearls and Irritations, which I just loved because, actually, what you were saying is there are these pearls in the pandemic. There is a lot of good news here, perhaps good news that we’re not seeing in the media, but good news in our own lives and our own communities and we can tell each other those stories.
Hugh: That’s right, and create those stories. It’s very true that in general, the media, which has been wall-to-wall coronavirus now for months, and it’s almost all grim. Occasionally, we hear something good, but generally speaking, it’s, “What’s the bad news today from here or the UK or wherever it might be?”
We do need an antidote and the antidote, of course, is good news. And if the good news isn’t going to come to us from somewhere else, we create it. And we can create it. You create good news in your street by simply waving and smiling and saying, “Good day,” to everybody you see; not people you know or recognise, but just everybody. And that’s certainly happening around here.
I notice now when I go walking, which I do a couple of times each day, we keep a very, very significant and correct distance from each other, but the warmth is very noticeable. We’re smiling and saying hello. We might have otherwise just waved a finger or something. That’s good news.
Stopping and chatting over a neighbour’s fence. The people who stood in their own front gardens in a street I heard of and sang Happy Birthday to someone in the street who had had a birthday, that’s good news. The bag of lemons that you mentioned that someone had picked from their tree and left on the doorstep of an older person, that’s good news. And that’s the sort of thing people will talk about, as I’ve been talking to you about the balcony choir. That was good news.
Ginger: It’s an indictment though on the media, really, isn’t it, that we’re not hearing those stories and that’s probably a whole other conversation.
Hugh, just back to Generation COVID for a second, I was thinking about my own kids and thinking what is going to happen to them as a result of the pandemic? Are they going to grow up not wanting to touch other people, thinking that other people will make them sick? What are the changes in them going to be? For example, are they going to never want a casual job, want permanent employment, have significant changes in their psyche because of this?
Hugh: Well, there will be some and I think most of them will be positive. You mentioned will they not want to hug and kiss? Well, they will want to hug and kiss if it’s you or their grandma or their boyfriend when they get to that stage. But if they’re a little more hesitate about randomly hugging and kissing, that is probably very good news for public health.
We noticed what happened in Spain and Italy, the great hugging and kissing nations on earth. And they are beginning to realise that it’s inappropriate, especially if you have any symptoms. If your kids and their generation are going to be a bit more cautious about all this hygiene stuff, that’s going to be very good news for flu epidemics and even for the spreading of the common cold.
They’ll be the generation who will say, “I’ve got a cold. I’ll stay home, not because I feel too sick to go to work, but because I owe it to other people to stay home.” I think that’s another big lesson we’ve learned out of this that we do these things for each other, not just for ourselves.
Ginger: Yeah. It’s actually an act of great solidarity, isn’t it, that we all stay home?
Ginger: I want to ask you about two separate things that you’ve said and bring them together. Earlier on in this conversation when we were talking about young people and how, in a lot of instances, technology has isolated them. But as you’ve said, we’ve seen Zoom almost bringing us together in some ways, even though we are isolated in our own homes in a lot of instances. So, is technology isolating us or is it actually a tool that we can use to bring us together?
Hugh: Well, the word is ‘balance’. It’s both. And I think the pandemic has really sharpened our understanding of that. Technology is fantastic for bringing us together when it’s not easy to be physically together. So, texts and Instagram posts and Zoom meetings are all terrific when you can’t be together, but not as good as the real thing.
Now, what I think we’ll learn from this experience is to be a bit more balanced, a bit more nuanced about being more flexible, saying, “Well, we could have our meeting in Sydney, but that means people are going to have to fly from Melbourne or drive from Canberra and so on, or we could just have it on Zoom.” That’s another thing I think we’ve learned from the Zoom technology that it works really well with people that you know. It’s not so good when you’re having a meeting with strangers. You are seeing them, but the cues are not nearly as obvious.
Ginger: I think you see the cues a quarter of a second after they happen, and so it’s really disconcerting. There’s been a lot of research or commentary saying it’s exhausting psychologically for that reason and especially if you don’t know the person, especially if you don’t already have a human connection with them because it’s really off-putting, actually. Especially if there are lots of people you don’t know on the screen, it’s not actually a very connective experience.
Hugh: No. Psychologically, it is a totally different experience from being in a meeting. And it is much more demanding. An hour on Zoom is, in terms of emotional and psychological fatigue, it’s about the equivalent of three hours in a live meeting because in a life meeting, you can switch off and look around and have a little chat to the person next to you. None of that can happen on Zoom. You have to concentrate. You have to stare at that screen. Forty-five minutes is about as much as most people can handle with a Zoom meeting.
Ginger: Thank you so much for talking to me today.
Hugh: A great pleasure. Thank you, Ginger.
Ginger: Thanks again for listening to Seriously Social. And what an absolute pleasure to chat to eminent Psychologist and Social Researcher, Hugh Mackay, in his home. I honestly could have listened to him all day.
And on that note, don’t forget that next week, on Wednesday, June 24, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia is hosting a fascinating symposium called Loneliness and the Digital Age, and Hugh is one of the keynote speakers.
If you would like to hear more about this issue of whether technologies do help address loneliness or whether they make the issue worse, go to our website socialsciences.org.au and all the information is there.
[Music and voiceover 28:03 – 28:26 This episode of the Seriously Social podcast was brought to you by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and hosted by Ginger Gorman. For episode notes and transcripts, visit socialsciences.org.au/podcasts.]
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