Social Distancing & Social Skills


I spoke with Tanzina Vega on "The Takeaway" about how our social distancing during 2020 might affect our social skills and relationships.

Research Notes. I was curious about the psychological impact of social distancing on loneliness, so in my as I prepared for this interview I looked for research about pandemic related loneliness.

I was surprised by how many studies were available and one of the most interesting studies I found was from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers compared surveys of people in the United States conducted during the spring of 2018 and the spring of 2020. They wanted to investigate differences in the levels of serious psychological distress and loneliness before and after the pandemic.

They found that rates of serious psychological distress were three times in higher in 2020 compared to 2018. In 2020, 14% of respondents reported serious psychological distress compared to roughly 4% in 2018.  In the figures below, light green bars represent 2018 and dark green bars represent 2020.


There were notable differences among demographic groups, including higher levels of distress among women, Hispanics, and young adults aged 18-29 (see below).


I was somewhat surprised that there were not large increases regarding the levels of loneliness reported by the 2020 survey group. In 2018, the percent of people reporting they often or always felt lonely was 11%, and in 2020, the rate was roughly 14%. Another study found small differences or no differences in how much "social connectedness" people felt before and after the pandemic.

In general, I found that psychological distress had increased during the pandemic, but there were not large differences regarding the degree of loneliness and social connectedness people reported.

McGinty, Emma E., Rachel Presskreischer, Hahrie Han, and Colleen L. Barry. “Psychological Distress and Loneliness Reported by US Adults in 2018 and April 2020.” JAMA 324, no. 1 (July 7, 2020): 93.
For a review see:
Vindegaard, Nina, and Michael Eriksen Benros. “COVID-19 Pandemic and Mental Health Consequences: Systematic Review of the Current Evidence.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, May 2020, S0889159120309545.

In these research notes, I'll share an insight or two I stumbled across while preparing for an interview. Because of time constraints, the spontaneous flow of conversation, or editing, the content from these research notes may not appear in the final product. But I hope some folks will find something interesting or useful in these notes.