Many Americans felt socially isolated during the pandemic, cut off from friends and family while crouching and keeping their distance to protect themselves from infection.
However, new research released Thursday suggests that even as the United States’ public health crisis subsided, communities opened up, and the economy improved, many people’s feelings of isolation have increased.
While the level of social isolation decreased in the spring of the pandemic after the initial shock of the crisis subsided, according to researchers from Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers universities, it increased sharply in the summer months of last year before turning during the year autumn leveled off again.
People began to feel less disconnected from December to April this year, but the levels of social isolation measured by the researchers increased again this June.
The results suggest that recovery from the pandemic could take a long time and could affect people’s view of their relationships over time. “There were cumulative effects of social isolation,” said David Lazer, professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern and one of the study authors.
To determine social isolation, the researchers asked each person how many people they could count on to care for them when they were sick, to lend them money, to talk to them about a problem when they were depressed, or to help them with the Searching for a job. Someone who said they had only one person or no one to turn to in a certain category was considered socially isolated.
The researchers interviewed a total of 185,223 people in 12 different surveys from April 2020 to June 2021.
Even now, with many more people vaccinated against the coronavirus and becoming much more active in their communities, people may think differently about those they previously relied on. “This break in life can lead to a lot of overwork in our relationships,” said Dr. Lazer, who pointed out the unusual number of people who decided to leave their jobs when the pandemic ends. “It takes a while for the social fabric to heal.”
The increase in the feeling of isolation even when the most severe restrictions were lifted was “noticeable,” said Mario L. Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. People may have felt they had fewer people to lean on because they physically distanced themselves from a wide network of acquaintances and friends, he said, even as the locks eased.
The researchers found that last summer, despite seeing more people, people’s isolation increased. “Our results show that it is difficult to recover from social isolation and is not just due to increased social contact,” the researchers concluded.
The researchers also point to a strong association between social isolation, particularly among people who said they lacked people to turn to for emotional support, and moderate or severe depression.
Many of the lower-income and less-educated people hardest hit by the pandemic appear to be improving more slowly, said Dr. Lazer. “We are definitely seeing a segregation of fates in terms of socioeconomic status,” he said, with some groups experiencing longer and more uneven recovery.