Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World Contents

Chapter 6: Social interaction

199.Prior to the pandemic, for most of us, much of our social interaction happened face-to-face, but the COVID-19 restrictions have had a dramatic impact on our ability to interact and socialise with others, and we have been increasingly relying on digital communication methods to stay in touch. Many people are eagerly awaiting the relaxation of restrictions to allow increased socialising with family, friends and colleagues, and it is unlikely that digital communication will ever replace our desire to spend time with others face-to-face. As has already been emphasised throughout this report, “nothing on earth ever replaces face-to-face.”243 However, a long-term hybrid approach may improve the opportunities for some people, particularly those who struggle to access physical spaces, to establish and maintain relationships.

200.Public Health England has explained that the quality and quantity of social relationships can affect health behaviours, physical and mental health, and the risk of mortality.244 For example, social isolation is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease, in part, because social isolation and feelings of loneliness can be a physical or psychosocial stressor resulting in behaviour that is damaging to health, such as smoking.245 On the other hand, positive social relationships and networks can promote health by:

Box 12: Social interaction, health and wellbeing

The best predictor of everything to do with your health and well-being—your mental health, your mental well-being, your physical health, your physical well-being, how susceptible you are to simple winter coughs and colds, how quickly you recover from major surgery, even your risk of dying and even the risk of your children’s morbidity, falling prey to diseases, and indeed mortality—are a simple consequence of the number and quality of close friendships you have.

If you always or often feel lonely, you are far more likely to attend A&E, you GP or local authority residential care, be unemployed, lose your job or not be productive, so there is a real cost incentive to investing in schemes to tackle loneliness. A recent study commissioned by the Government … estimates that the cost to public services per person who always or often feels lonely is about £9,500 a year, and that is quite a conservative estimate. We would be saving a lot by investing in our connections.

Source: Q 72 (Professor Robin Dunbar) and Q 75 (Olivia Field)

The impact of the pandemic on the use of digital technology

201.Many of us have responded to the pandemic-related restrictions on social contact by moving our social interactions online. Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report found that more than seven in ten adults in the UK are now making video calls at least once a week, an increase from 35 per cent pre-pandemic. It suggested that this trend is particularly noticeable in older internet users, where the proportion of online adults aged 65 and over, who make at least one video-call a week increased from 22 per cent in February 2020 to 61 per cent by May 2020.246

202.Many organisations that previously offered face-to-face services that aim to tackle loneliness and social exclusion also started operating digitally. Jane East, Managing Director of the Cares Family, explained that it had replaced its activity clubs with Zoom phone-in clubs,247 which bring together small groups for meaningful conversations, and Olivia Field, Head of Health and Resilience Policy at the British Red Cross, noted that many of its community-based services have had to shift from face-to-face provision to online or over the phone provision throughout the pandemic.248

203.At the same time, many of the day-to-day activities that incidentally offer social contact—travelling to and being in a workplace, shopping, banking etc—also moved online. For example, the latest ONS statistics, from November 2020, show a 75 per cent growth in the value of online retail sales compared to the same period the year before.249 A recent survey by Waitrose found that 20 per cent of those doing their grocery shopping online had not considered it before.250 Ian Macrae also referred to data from Lloyds Bank, showing that the number of over-70s who had signed up for online banking had tripled.251

Box 13: Digital technology and social interaction in rural communities

Digital technology undoubtedly helps most rural residents to stay in contact with relatives and friends. It (as well as non-digital solutions) can play an important role in addressing the isolation and loneliness to be found within rural communities. Physical isolation can be an added dimension in rural areas for those living in small or outlying settlements. This may be compounded by … a lack of local facilities where people might typically meet and interact.

Source: Written evidence from the Rural Services Network (LOL0038)

What we have learned

204.Olivia Field stated that digital technology platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook have helped organisations like the British Red Cross to reach new audiences that are known to be struggling emotionally, and have also helped to give some people an opportunity to open up about their feelings.252 Olivia explained that as these platforms provide people with a level of anonymity, this can give a more honest and accurate insight into some people’s experiences. Olivia also emphasised that certain groups have benefited from the shift to online, particularly those who are “housebound or near housebound, because they have caring duties, or a lack of mobility, or a long-term health condition that prevents them getting out and about.”253

205.However, Jane East explained that the move to offering support online has not been without its drawbacks, and that in its experience fewer young people have engaged with its projects, despite being able to access them online, as they did not feel that the online connection was as meaningful as a face-to-face connection.254 Olivia Field also described how many British Red Cross service users have reflected on the fact that their online connections, and even their over-the-phone connections, have not been as meaningful as face-to-face connections. Olivia noted that many people have reported that it is much harder to broach difficult conversations, particularly about people’s emotional needs and feelings, online.255 Olivia also emphasised that many of the British Red Cross’ frontline staff and volunteers reported that it is much more difficult to build a meaningful connection with service users online as these interactions often feel more transactional.

206.Barnardo’s evidence concentrated on some of the positive impacts of ‘living online’ on young people’s lives, such as increasing social connections, reducing social isolation and loneliness, accessing information and peer support networks, developing knowledge and learning through wider access to information, and enabling young people to develop an identity and express themselves freely and creatively.256 Scope also discussed some of the positive implications of an increasing reliance on digital technology for disabled children and young people, including that the move online has meant less pressure to socialise in person, or in new places, and that friends and family have been more understanding of their concerns and willing to socialise online.257 It noted that for others, the increase in online hangouts has also opened up new opportunities to join groups and meet new people that they would not have met before. Jane East agreed, explaining that the Cares Family’s projects have been able to bring people together online who would not usually use its activity clubs, particularly disabled people or people who are housebound.258

207.Young Minds also emphasised that digital technology can be beneficial in allowing young people to connect with others with similar experiences, identities and interests.259 Notably, it suggested that social media has been shown to play an important role in young people feeling less lonely through the connection with like-minded peers. As part of work conducted by Young Minds, young people told it that having access to forums and social media platforms allowed them to develop friendships with people from different communities, town and countries in a way that they did not feel able to do otherwise. Young Minds noted that this may be particularly important for young people who experience marginalisation and discrimination in their communities. For example, research shows that online spaces can provide young LGBTQI+ people with opportunities to access important knowledge and information, as well as connect them with young people with similar experiences.

208.On the other hand, the Cares Family stated that online, people tend to seek out people who are like, or similar, to themselves, and that algorithms tend to connect people with people who think in a similar way.260 It suggested that this can lead to reduction in the breadth of social connections, compared to those connections people might make in a workplace, at community centres, in pubs or libraries. Professor Robin Dunbar agreed, stating that one issue with online interactions and online environments is that they very quickly become silos or echo chambers, because people gravitate together.261 Professor Dunbar argued that this is in contrast to traditional places where people meet each other, such as pubs or community centres, where people are “forced, whether you liked it or not, to talk to people who did not necessarily agree with you and whom you had not necessarily met before.”262

209.Statistics on the prevalence of loneliness certainly suggest that restrictions on face-to-face interactions have had an impact. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing have stated that: “Prior to Covid-19, the Understanding Society (USoc) Survey found that 8.5% of people in the UK answered that they were often or always lonely.”263 A similar survey undertaken between March and May 2020 found that 18.5 per cent of people were often or always lonely. The Centre also stated that “people who felt most lonely prior to Covid in the UK now have even higher levels of loneliness”, and found that those who “are young, living alone, on low incomes, out of work and, or with a mental health condition” were most at risk of being lonely.264

210.Professor Dunbar suggested this could have serious consequences: “The problem comes when people’s natural socialisation processes are interrupted because they are unable to meet up, which kickstarts this steady decline in relationships … The knock-on consequences will inevitably be increased rates of general diseases. The ones that seem to be most key here are some but not all cancers, particular coronary-type diseases, and dementias, which are hugely affected by whether or not you are well embedded in a network of social relationships.”265

211.For many people the option of maintaining relationships online during the pandemic has been better than nothing; but for those who are unable to leave their houses, perhaps because of a disability or caring responsibility, the growth in online social activities has been a real benefit that they will hope to maintain. It is also clear that most people are keen to resume ‘real world’ social interactions as soon as possible, and that loneliness has increased significantly while our only real outlet for interaction has been digital.

Potential future uses of technology and preparing for the hybrid world

212.Witnesses working for organisations that support social inclusion recognised that the future would be hybrid. Olivia Field emphasised that despite the fact that “online services are here to stay to an extent”, there is also a need to ensure that offline services are available, particularly to meet people’s non-clinical needs, such as loneliness.266 The Children’s Society recommended that digital services should be provided in addition to other options for engaging with services, explaining that as society becomes increasingly digital, there should be options for people to become ‘digital by choice’, rather than forced to adapt to new ways of living overnight.267 It explained that a blended approach, with both digital and face-to-face support available, would allow people to find support that is suitable for them, depending on their skills and circumstances. Jane East noted that in future the Cares Family will be offering hybrid services, as “some online engagements have been really useful and enabled people to engage who have never been able to before.”268

213.Throughout our inquiry, we have heard that essential services, such as healthcare, as well as opportunities to socialise with others, will increasingly be provided online. As such, providing individuals with digital rights will become increasingly more important, as discussed in more detail in Chapter 2.

214.Witnesses expressed concern that, without local and national Government intervention, a hybrid world risks being one with few physical spaces within communities that allow for social interaction. Jane East emphasised that:

“We risk looking back a few years from now and wondering how we got here. That will be the day when there are only self-service tills in shops, and some are already like that; when there are no banks for miles around—it is already like that; when post offices are hard to find—it is already like that. Libraries are closing, and all these communal spaces are closing.”269

215.Olivia Field agreed, explaining that it is vital that we not only protect existing physical spaces, but also invest in new ones and re-imagine them so that they foster connections. Olivia stated that:

“Those social spaces, the places where people go to maintain existing relationships and to build new ones, are essential in connecting our communities, protecting our resilience and protecting against loneliness.”270

216.Olivia went on to suggest that there are already mechanisms such as regeneration funds and the Towns Fund, which could be used to invest in physical spaces, and that there is the potential to consider the social, as well as economic, impact of these investments.271

217.Olivia also explained that under-utilised places, such as shops that have closed, can be used by grass-roots community organisations, who often struggle to afford or access spaces to carry out their activities.272 The Relationship Project discussed similar ideas, and outlined the opportunities offered by an increasing reliance on digital technology to change how physical spaces and facilities are used, explaining that the increase in online shopping could see:

“‘fulfilment centres’ - the collection points in shops - could be reconfigured to include some facility for community interaction or perhaps they could be relocated into existing community facilities eg libraries, community centres, places of worship or the new Hubs which many councils established in lockdown. The service would not only increase foot fall but more importantly become a community meeting point and generate income which could pay for, for example, drop ins and coffee mornings.”273

218.The government in Brussels is supporting initiatives where older people offer a room in their homes to a younger person, to help combat loneliness and issues around housing affordability. Projects are already under way to create 350 new intergenerational homes as part of the city’s public housing policies.274

219.Our increasing reliance on digital technology has only underlined the importance of protecting those physical spaces in communities which provide people with opportunities to meet face-to-face and provide digital infrastructure for communities. Neighbourhoods need to have spaces for social interaction, where people can go about their daily activities in proximity to each other; the modern equivalent of the old ‘town square’. We know that many neighbourhoods have lost libraries and other community spaces in recent years, and the combination of the pandemic and the growth in e-commerce is now resulting in the closure of the sorts of places—shops, banks, cafes, pubs—that allow for incidental social interaction and enable people to feel more connected. We will explore these issues in more depth during our forthcoming inquiry on towns and cities but, given the relationship between social connection and wellbeing, this is a significant threat. More support is needed to facilitate local authorities, third sector organisations and businesses coming together with local communities to rethink how public spaces need to adapt to the hybrid world.

220.As part of its post-pandemic recovery plans, the UK Government should bring together elements of the Future High Streets Fund, Towns Fund, and additional funding, to specifically protect the future of physical and communal spaces, such as libraries and neighbourhood centres, in villages, towns and cities in England. Local authorities should also be encouraged to use this funding to trial new types of community infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, such as the remote working ‘hubs’ mentioned in Chapter 5. Such remote working hubs could also be used to provide space for the community, for local clubs and societies, regular community events and adult learning classes.

221.In October 2018, the Government published A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness,275 which had three goals:

222.While the strategy recognised that “society is changing rapidly” and that we are moving “towards a more digital society,”276 there was no way of foreseeing how the COVID pandemic would dramatically change our relationship with digital technology, and each other.

223.In considering interventions that may help to tackle the impact of our increasing reliance on digital technology on loneliness and social isolation, Olivia Field explained that NHS England, in its first loneliness strategy, had committed to rolling-out social prescribing Link Workers. Olivia noted that this was:

“based on a lot of work that the voluntary and community sector has been doing to tackle loneliness and connect individuals who have been isolated and lonely for long periods.”277

224.Olivia described the social prescribing model, stating that it is a temporary service, rather than a long-term service, and that the social prescribing Link Worker typically works with an individual for three months. Olivia went on to state that:

“We provide one-to-one tailored person-centred support, which involves really getting to know the individual, getting to the root of their issues and working with them to co-develop small, achievable goals that over that three-month period can raise their confidence and independence.”278

225.Olivia emphasised that the social prescribing model has been effective in building people’s confidence and independence, and that the social prescribing of one-to-one support can “make a massive difference.”279

Box 14: Self-isolation, loneliness and reintegration

Many people have been isolating for the whole period since March—almost a year, now. I am really concerned about those people’s ability to take up opportunities to reintegrate and have the confidence to connect with those around them, even when it is safe and there is an opportunity to do so. We have been calling for the Government to think about explicitly incorporating tackling loneliness into their recovery plans at national and local level. We are also calling for them to think about what sort of confidence and reintegration support will be available for people who have been most affected, and whose relationships have been most affected, by Covid to allow them to reintegrate into society in the aftermath.

Source: Q 73 (Olivia Field)

226.The Government’s Loneliness Strategy for England states that it does not “attempt to resist how society is changing or try to turn back time,”280 but rather “looks at what can be done to design in support for social relationships in this changing context.”281 We have heard evidence that the smart use of digital technology can decrease loneliness, but we also acknowledge that the experience of the pandemic shows the importance of face-to-face interaction and that the Government’s work to address loneliness is more important than ever. The approaches taken in the Loneliness Strategy, and by organisations working in this field, will need to recognise that we are living in a hybrid world, while also acknowledging the importance of face-to-face interaction.

227.In developing its new hybrid strategy, the UK Government should ensure that it interacts with, and complements, its existing Loneliness Strategy for England.

243 Q 72 (Professor Robin Dunbar)

244 Public Health England, Local Action on Health Inequalities: Reducing Social Isolation Across the Lifecourse (September 2015): [accessed 3 March 2021]

245 Public Health England, Public Health Matters blog—Loneliness and Isolation: Social Relationships are Key to Good Health (8 December 2015): [accessed 3 March 2021]

246 Ofcom, ‘UK’s internet use surges to record levels’ (24 June 2020): [accessed 12 April 2021]

247 Q 68 (Jane East)

248 Q 68 (Olivia Field)

249 Office for National Statistics, ‘Retail sales, Great Britain: November 2020’: [accessed 11 February 2021]

251 Q 5 (Ian Macrae)

252 Q 80 (Olivia Field)

253 Ibid.

254 Q 68 (Jane East)

255 Q 68 (Olivia Field)

256 Written evidence from Barnardo’s (LOL0075)

257 Written evidence from Scope (LOL0094)

258 Q 68 (Jane East)

259 Written evidence from Young Minds (LOL0099)

260 Written evidence from The Cares Family (LOL0115)

261 Q 74 (Professor Robin Dunbar)

262 Ibid.

263 What Works Centre for Wellbeing, How has Covid-19 and associated lockdown measures affected loneliness in the UK: [accessed 4 March 2021]

264 Ibid.

265 Q 74 (Professor Robin Dunbar)

266 Q 68 (Olivia Field)

267 Written evidence from the Children’s Society (LOL0085)

268 Q 74 (Jane East)

269 Q 80 (Jane East)

270 Q 80 (Olivia Field)

271 Ibid.

272 Q 78 (Olivia Field)

273 Written evidence from The Relationship Project (LOL0120)

274 Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, The Future Generations Report 2020: Executive Summaries: [accessed 13 April 2021]

275 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness (October 2018): [accessed 9 March 2021]

276 Ibid.

277 Q 74 (Olivia Field)

278 Ibid.

279 Ibid.

280 HM Government, A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness (October 2018): [accessed 9 March 2021]

281 Ibid.

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