New research suggests lockdowns are re-shaping our social networks. What does that mean for our post-Covid relationships?

Karen Lamb, by her own admission, was a bit of a social butterfly before a coronavirus spike prompted a second, severe lockdown in the Australian city of Melbourne, where she lives. The 35-year-old statistician would go to the theatre, weekly choir and go-go dancing classes and spend lots of time with friends. Lockdown has disrupted Lamb’s social behaviour and networks. Her world has shifted online, and sometimes Lamb can feel lonely. 

She’s not alone: huge volumes of people reported feeling lonely in the first wave of coronavirus lockdowns earlier this year. According to research by loneliness expert Dr Michelle Lim, of Swinburne University of Technology, one in two Australians reported feeling lonely during the first lockdown. In Britain and the US, the ratio was two out of three. 

Now, researchers in Australia are examining how these enforced periods of isolation are changing our social interactions. Although the pandemic is playing out differently in nations around the world – European nations are moving back toward tighter restrictions while Australia is emerging out of them – we share a question: if lockdowns are changing the way we socialise, what does that mean for how long our loneliness will last? 

Consolidating friendship networks 

The research is a joint project between two academics, Dr Marlee Bower, a loneliness researcher at the University of Sydney, and sociologist Dr Roger Patulny of the University of Wollongong. Initial results of a tracking survey they sent to almost 2,000 Australians have showed some significant pandemic-linked behavioural changes are underway. 

Bower says that in open-ended responses to the survey, many people indicated that they had begun to shrink their social networks. “They would socialise with not as many people as before, but rather a very particular sub-group,” she says. “For people who have connections to draw on and are able to leverage their existing friendships online, they’re doing pretty well. In many instances, they’re closer to the friends they had.”

I’ve found that over the last six months I’ve become much more detached from my day-to-day pals - Karen Lamb

That’s been the case for Lamb, who is Scottish but has lived in Melbourne for eight years. Before the lockdown, she would speak to Amy, one of her oldest friends, about four or five times a year. Now they chat every Thursday, at a fixed time, and both wonder why they haven’t always done so. 

Some of her other friendships, however, have not fared so well. “I’ve found it easier to keep in touch with my Scottish folk than with my Australian folk,” says Lamb. “I’ve just not had that online relationship with my Australians. I’ve found that over the last six months I’ve become much more detached from my day-to-day pals.” 

“When social interactions moved online, only certain kinds of relationships seemed to survive,” explains Bower. Once the local or community context of a relationship was taken away, it was relationships where those in it had something in common besides their shared work or hobby interest, where everyone felt comfortable with digital technology, that managed to hold together or become stronger. Many wanted to share their pandemic stress with those to whom they felt closest; old friends from home towns and very close local friends.  

“Because the majority of social interaction occurred online, it meant that socialising with people who live locally was just as easy as socialising with people who live on the other side of the world. This meant that people could socialise and reconnect with people who they were closer to, regardless of location,” she says.

You’re not necessarily close to those who you share a neighbourhood with - Covid is really showing this up - Roger Patulny

Contemporary society is often defined by the movement of people away from their place of origin, adds Patulny. “You’re closer to the people who live on the other side of the planet, because they are the ones you grew up with. You’re not necessarily close to those who you share a neighbourhood with. Covid is really showing this up.” 

‘Missing out on the chat’ 

Yet it is also clear that when it comes to people in our lives with whom we don’t have enough of a foundation of friendship to build an online relationship during the pandemic, we miss our interactions with them. 

Lamb misses Di, a fellow choir member. The two women aren’t close friends, but always used to chat during rehearsal breaks. Zoom has enabled choir to continue; Lamb now finds herself singing Dreams by Fleetwood Mac to her computer with the microphone on mute, but the casual chats with Di are no longer possible. Lamb also misses the group of male friends she and her partner had made; the men are maintaining their ties through online gaming during lockdown, but Lamb does not take part, so there’s no avenue to continue those friendships. “That’s one of the things that has made me the most lonely,” she says. “I’m missing out on the chat.”

We miss those who - while not close friends - were a casual, enjoyable part of our day to day lives, the researchers found

We miss those who - while not close friends - were a casual, enjoyable part of our day to day lives, the researchers found

Patulny and Bower found many people reported missing these micro-interactions with people in their communities, which are nearly impossible to facilitate via digital communication. “The ability to just stop, gossip, laugh, joke and all the things that you do outside the meetings – that doesn’t happen when you are meeting online,” says Patulny. “The extra peripheral contact has been lost, and that’s an important loss.” 

There is a risk of decay of social networks without these little interactions, he says, as they help to really connect to people. As for whether we can pick these friendships back up post-pandemic, Bower points to recent evidence from the UK suggesting that people who were lonely before Covid were likely to be slightly lonelier afterwards, but others did not experience long-term changes. She expresses some concern, however, that an extended period of loneliness for some people could make little interactions feel more challenging in the longer term.  

“We know that people who experience loneliness for extended periods of time start to experience negative persistent impacts on the way they think and act in social situations – they are more hypervigilant of rejection, they are more socially anxious – and these can make those simple interactions more difficult and less likely to go smoothly,” she says. 

Reverting or changing 

Bower and Patulny’s research will follow their cohort as Australia continues its march out of Covid restrictions. They will survey the same cohort every three months to determine how behaviour is changing and why, and feed into a think tank that is considering the mental health impacts of the pandemic. It is too early for any estimates of what, if any, long term social changes may set in, but the researchers suggest that it could be a little while before interactions return to normal. 

“I wonder if the fact that you’re not used to socialising, and that now there is a risk associated with socialising, whether those things together will lead to long-term impacts on the way we feel and how we are able to overcome loneliness,” Bower says. Patuly says she wouldn’t be surprised by a slight increase in loneliness which lasts for a few years. 

However Michelle Lim, the loneliness expert, believes that for most people, both the loss of micro-interactions and the narrowing of their social networks are temporary, tied directly to the public health emergency, and are unlikely to outlast it.

“Whether [lockdown isolation] will be significantly detrimental to your relationships will be up to many factors – whether the individual is resilient, whether they have robust social networks, whether they make the efforts to maintain their friendships despite these barriers,” says Lim. It is also still not clear, she adds, whether longer lockdowns – both government-mandated or due to peoples’ need to shield for pre-existing health conditions – will lead to different or more pronounced outcomes.

Those who were not lonely before Covid-19 are unlikely to be very lonely in the long term once it is all over

Lim says it is possible that, for the immediate future, face-to-face interactions may change as we remain mindful of public health. But she says it is human nature to revert to social groups; most people who have broken lockdown regulations have done so in order to see friends and family.

After we recover from the shock of these altered behaviours, she believes things will likely return to a previous normal. The main determinants of loneliness are pretty stable, she adds. Those who were not lonely before Covid-19 are unlikely to be very lonely in the long term once it is all over. 

“I think for a short period there will be change,” she says. “But we are creatures of habit. Unless these behaviours are very, very long term, I think we will revert back to our social groups.”