4.1. Factors Associated with Loneliness
Pandemic-related concerns, in particular concerns about finances and the future, were associated with loneliness. Previous research on loneliness has also suggested that those with a low household income experience more loneliness, compared to those with high household income [33
]. Bu and colleagues [33
] noted that while this was the case before the pandemic outbreak (based on data collected in 2017–2019), new data collected between March and May 2020 suggest that this relationship was even stronger during the early stage of the pandemic. As our study showed no relationship between employment and loneliness, it appears that the relationship between financial concerns and loneliness is independent of current employment status. Interestingly, our study showed that concerns about finances were more strongly related to social loneliness, compared to emotional loneliness. During normal circumstances, money plays a crucial role in a person’s ability to participate in social arenas in the community (e.g., cafes, cinemas, concerts). While the opportunity to use such commercial social arenas was drastically reduced due to social distancing policies in the early stage of the pandemic, it may be that people are—nine months later—again inclined to perceive money as an important means to access social relationships. However, social relationships during the pandemic are often maintained by one’s virtual rather than physical presence.
Conversely, concerns about the future were more strongly related to emotional loneliness, compared to social loneliness. It is possible that such concerns—abstract and perhaps vague concerns about an unknown future, as opposed to practical concerns of managing everyday life at the present—are difficult to discuss over the phone or on video calls, even with friends and family. If so, they may tend to become private concerns and can as such be interpreted as possible precursors of emotional loneliness. Concerns about the future may be related to existential questions about purpose and meaning in life, and for some individuals, the pandemic situation appears to evoke feelings of emptiness and being remote from the world, as suggested previously [22
Social media use was found to be significantly, but weakly, related to higher levels of emotional (and overall) loneliness. Thus, while more time spent on social media did not affect levels of social loneliness, more time spent on social media correlated with slightly higher levels of emotional loneliness, implying stronger feelings of emptiness, rejection, and remoteness from people. Social media have gained enormous popularity since they emerged [34
] and have been used increasingly during the pandemic [36
]. However, our findings are in line with studies indicating that their use may instigate more, rather than less, loneliness [36
]. Social media use has also been associated with poorer mental health [25
]. Reciprocal relationships are equally possible—more loneliness may increase social media use, whereas increased social media use in turn may increase loneliness. Serving as a way to stay connected, social media may also be a reminder of the uncertainties present with the pandemic and may therefore increase feelings of loneliness instead of alleviating them.
On the other hand, some researchers have argued that psychological outcomes related to social media use may not only be concerned with the amount of time spent on social media, but also with the motives for their use [37
]. While pro-social motives, such as having contact with friends and family, may reduce loneliness over time, compensation motives (using social media to compensate for lacking social skills in real life) or addiction motives (unable to log off) may increase it [37
Among the sociodemographic covariates, higher age was found to be related to higher social loneliness but lower emotional loneliness. Reduced size and quality of social networks is commonly found among persons in the older age groups [39
], and people of older age may be less able to use digital tools as an alternative to direct contact in the COVID-19 era with the social distancing and sheltering at home policies in place [40
]. In this situation, social media have become more important for maintaining social contacts [27
]. A clinical trial that trained older adults to use social networking sites found that those who had participated in the training were more likely to use social networking and reported reduced feelings of being left out [41
]. Thus, public health strategies to improve social media and digital communication literacy for older adults in the community may be recommended to reduce social loneliness in the older population.
It may be that older adults experience emotional loneliness at levels similar to those of younger people but are less likely to express it in surveys. Alternatively, older adults may be less prone to experience emotional loneliness. Life experience may buffer against feelings of emptiness and loss of meaning, despite having fewer people around in their daily life. Studies demonstrating less depression [42
] and better global health [43
] among those of older age indicate that life experience is a valuable resource that can buffer against emotional loneliness as an effect of the inevitable burdens that are introduced in older age. Still, the higher social loneliness in older adults is of concern. Loneliness in old age is generally acknowledged as an urgent public health problem [44
], particularly in those living without a spouse or partner. In turn, during the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness was found to be associated with higher levels of psychological distress [12
] and even with malnutrition [45
4.3. Study Limitations
The study used a variety of measures, both well-tested questionnaires and measures that were developed by the researchers for this particular study. While the newly developed measures appear to be relatively straightforward and easy to understand (e.g., the questions about concerns, risk assessment, and measures taken against risk), their status as new and untested measures should be taken into consideration when interpreting the results of the study.
Respondents received invitations to participate through social media. With social media being an aspect for individuals to potentially engage with others, the responses are not inclusive of individuals that do not utilize social media and limits the ability to generalize the results to the general populations of the respective countries. The sample had a large proportion of women and persons with higher levels of education. Thus, also for these reasons, the sample should be considered skewed and not representative of the general population. Future studies may address this problem by using more sophisticated sampling methods, such as quota sampling or stratified sampling, as they may increase the chances of obtaining samples representative of the general population. Virtual university-sponsored research can unintentionally reach more college-educated respondents, as observed in our study, and reduce the diversity of age, race, gender identity, and socioeconomic status. Risk assessment allowed interpretation of the individual as they self-administered the tool. The study does not have pre-pandemic data to compare levels of loneliness before and after the outbreak. This study aims to explore loneliness and its associated factors nine months after the outbreak using cross-sectional data. A strength of the study is the relatively large and cross-nationally composed sample. Cross-national research engagement is known to reduce demographic bias with diverse geographical representation [46