Social media 'not a good substitute' for lockdown loneliness
The Agenda

COVID-19 has changed the rules on social interaction. The need for physical distancing can leave people feeling isolated, and while we can still keep in touch via online channels, this digitally distanced communication is no substitute for physical presence. 

That's the message from Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist and Oxford professor best known for formulating "Dunbar's number" – the limit of friends any one person can maintain stable relationships with.

"Our social worlds are really small-scale," Dunbar explained to Stephen Cole on The Agenda. "We sit in the center of a series of expanding circles of friendship and family relationships, which include only about 150 people on average. If you don't see friends, the relationship decays rather quickly within a couple of months of dropping the frequency with which you see someone."

New communal arrangements

Although lockdown has cut down these physical interactions, Dunbar has noted other relationships springing up instead. "People have started to get together with other people in their street or village – forming little collectives to help the elderly, making communal arrangements to keep life going."

Dunbar also cited some widely-shared footage: "I'll use the Italian example: standing out on our balconies and singing Verdi arias of an evening, which is another extremely important way of bonding the communities. And it's creating the sense of your street being a real community."

However, once lockdown ends, we may re-evaluate this newly-forged closeness, instead concentrating on our previously distant loved ones. "People will make a judgment about which relationships are now more important to them once we come out of lockdown," predicted Dunbar. "What will almost certainly happen is that initially there will be an upsurge of people getting together with their friends and family that they haven't seen for a while."

Digital poorer than physical

Understandably, many have turned to digital communication tools, but Dunbar explained that research into interaction quality suggests these can only ever be an imitation of presence. "There is absolutely no substitute for being able to stare literally into their eyes and grab them by their shoulders. Video channel media do better than text-based or even telephone media because they give you that slight sense of being in the same room together, but there's something about that sort of physical presence that seems to be really important."

Dunbar acknowledges that people who are naturally more sociable will struggle more than those who are happier in their own company, but he has a tip for all who might be afflicted. "The answer to all stressful events in life is: just cool it and relax. Try mindfulness, a little yoga in the morning or dare I say Pilates by Zoom. Doing that with somebody else is good for people because the synchrony – you're both doing exactly the same moves – creates a sense of relaxation and happiness."

Watch The Agenda's full interview with Professor Robin Dunbar: