Jonas Tana, PhD, senior lecturer, Department of Healthcare, Arcada UAS, E-mail: jonas.tana
The Covid-19 pandemic has directed increasing attention to loneliness due to the implementation of rather extensive social restriction measures to reduce the spread of the virus. These restrictions, such as shutting down restaurants and restricting social interaction, had a negative impact on social connectedness, creating a discrepancy between the actual and desired levels of social relationships for many people (McQuaid et al., 2021). Therefore, the pandemic has directly impacted overall levels of loneliness as well as feelings of isolation (Varga et al., 2021). However, loneliness, and the concern for a rising amount of people feeling lonely is no new phenomena. There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that loneliness is detrimental to health, and loneliness is increasingly recognised as a critical public health issue in both developed as well as developing countries (Lim, Eres and Vasan, 2020). A suggested reason for this growing concern may be related to emerging societal trends affecting the way we relate, communicate, and function in our increasingly digital environment. Yet loneliness and its impacts have within research been neglected, ignored and under examined resulting in significant gaps in our understanding of loneliness (Lim, Eres and Vasan, 2020; Prohaska et al., 2020). Reasons for this gap in our knowledge about loneliness have suggested to be methodological, as it has been difficult to study experienced loneliness (Treacy et al., 2004). However, and a bit contradictory, the emerging societal trends in how we communicate over the internet has provided us with the opportunity to study loneliness in novel ways.
In this Internet era individuals are able to engage and make sense of their situation online, and people frequently try to find out about, manage and treat issues, concerns and symptoms, anywhere and at any time. These online behaviours result in vast amounts of digital traces. Collecting and analysing these digital footprints left in search engines, social media and on websites to study health related behaviours has been dubbed infodemiology, and is a novel approach which can provide insights and knowledge on matters that have previously been difficult to study, like loneliness (Eysenbach 2009; Tana, 2019).
In one infodemiology study, Tana, Eirola and Eriksson-Backa. (2019a) analysed health related discussions in the largest, most popular, free and anonymous Finnish discussion forum Suomi24 (https://keskustelu.suomi24.fi/ (External link)). The health category of the discussion forum contains different sub-topics and sub-categories, of which loneliness is one. Between 1.1.2001 and 31.12.2017, the loneliness sub-category had 162 409 messages (Tana, Eirola and Eriksson-Backa, 2019b). An analysis of how the loneliness related messages were distributed on a 24-hour time scale revealed clear and recurring temporal patterns and significant variations between activity during day and night. Loneliness related discussions in the Suomi24 discussion forum follow a unimodal pattern, with clear night-time peaks between 2 and 4 at night, followed by daytime troughs (Tana, Eirola and Eriksson-Backa, 2019a). This finding would indicate that loneliness, much like mental health issues such as feelings of depression, is accentuated during night-time (Tana, 2019). Night-time has also in the few previous studies on experienced loneliness in relation to daily variations been identified as the most difficult time of day to spend alone, when experienced loneliness and becomes particularly critical (Stanley, Richard, and Williams, 2017). Reasons for the exacerbated experience of loneliness during night time has been suggested to be the lack of choice in seeking something to do or finding company during the night. Several coping strategies to mediate this feeling of loneliness and manage difficult thoughts during the night have been suggested, including having a pet to provide comfort and company or engaging in leisure occupations. Strategies to substitute companions and provide noise during night-time also include listening to the radio or watching television (Stanley, Richard, and Williams, 2017). Interestingly, and supporting these suggested coping mechanisms, a recent study has shown that primetime in Finland for many streaming media services, such as Netflix, is during night-time (Tana et al., 2020).
With these new insights, we are again a bit more knowledgeable when it comes to loneliness and the temporal variations of the experience of loneliness. Like the quote in the title from Whitney Houston’s hit song “I wanna dance with somebody”, the phenomenon of experienced night time loneliness is very much real, and can affect many individuals. Understanding this phenomenon can help in planning campaigns, interventions and services to alleviate loneliness. Campaigns for instance are an effective way to raise awareness of night-time loneliness and effectively address the stigma related to loneliness in general. Moreover, timely planned interventions, at times when people are experiencing loneliness, can in turn be more effective and have a positive impact on outcomes (Prohaska et al., 2020). Given the challenges that night-time poses for people who are experiencing loneliness, there is a need to explore the night more rigorously, and find effective ways to alleviate the suffering it causes (Stanley, Richard, and Williams, 2017).
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