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Dealing with the loneliness crisis with assistive technology

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Dealing with the loneliness crisis with assistive technology 1

By Karen Dolva, CEO and Co-Founder of No Isolation

Humans are social beings, and for most children, school will be their most important social arena. Unfortunately, however, many children and adolescents with long-term illnesses are unable to attend school for extended periods, due to treatment plans, ill health or more recently due to the risk of infection. Research has shown that long-stints of school absence for children and adolescents with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME) and cancer can range from months to years.

These prolonged periods of absence, which often lead to limited interactions with other children and adolescents, can result in children completely losing their social network, leaving them feeling cut off, lonely and isolated, all as a result of something that is completely out of their control. What kind of consequences can this type of social isolation have for children and young adults?

In a recent in-depth investigation into the impact of COVID-19 on the emotional and educational development of British school-aged children, No Isolation partnered with independent researcher, Henry Peck, to look into the impact of COVID-19 on school aged children, to shed further light on the consequences of school closures, not only across the UK, but the long term effects that this can have on children and adolescents everywhere throughout the pandemic.

As a company working to abolish loneliness and isolation amongst those suffering with chronic illness, we were already aware of the effect that social isolation can have on a child’s educational development and mental health. For the investigation we collected responses from 1,005 parents and carers of 1,477 children spanning primary and secondary school.

Results of the study found that a concerning 76% of parents and carers reported that, since lockdown, they have become worried that their children are suffering from loneliness. Results also showed that parents and carers of 5-10-year-olds worry that their children are lonely often or all of the time, whilst parents and carers of 11-16-year-olds are concerned that their children are lonely at least some of the time. This is likely due to the fact that older children have greater access to social technologies, while younger children often rely on non-verbal forms of communication such as facial expression, physical contact, and through play, all of which is difficult to recreate whilst away from the school setting.

At No Isolation we are committed to creating solutions that will help children stay connected to their friends and their education, regardless of circumstance. We’ve seen first-hand the devastating impact that loneliness can have on a child, and know that children that can’t attend school don’t just miss out on learning, they miss out on friendships too. Losing this contact during the early years developmental stages can be devastating, leading to anxiousness and an increase in feelings of isolation. This report sheds light on the hundreds of thousands of young people that may not be able to rejoin their friends in school, and it is vital that they don’t fall through the cracks. We plan to continue researching the impact of this unprecedented pandemic and driving the conversation around how we, as a nation, can ensure the mental wellbeing and educational development of those most affected.

Loneliness has been found to have serious implications for both physical and mental health. People suffering from loneliness are 32% more likely to have a stroke and are 26% more at risk of early mortality. From No Isolation’s own research into the impact of school absence due to long-term illness, we have found that  children are particularly vulnerable to loneliness if they cannot attend school.

Researchers, Perlman and Peplau, define loneliness as a negative feeling, stating that a lonely person is experiencing a discrepancy between desired and actual social contact. Being socially isolated is not synonymous with being lonely, but there will often be a correlation between social isolation and loneliness. Though much empirical research on adults and adolescents shows a link between loneliness and depression, many studies have found that friendship-related loneliness is more explanatory for depressive symptoms among adolescents than parent-related loneliness. One possible explanation is that friends are the preferred source of social support during adolescence.

With that in mind, we should be both sad and alarmed by the high numbers of young people unable to attend school, and more so by the fact that we do not really know who they are or exactly why they cannot go to school. Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness often correlate with mental disorders, including depressive disorders, there are, however, options available for children and adolescents in the form of assistive technologies, enabling them to stay connected with education and their peers.

The provision of dedicated school staff, inspirational hospital schools, the use of avatars like AV1 that enable children to attend school remotely, are just a few of the ways that assistive technology and exemplary attitudes are helping children with long-term illnesses from becoming disconnected from essential social networks. There are also examples of individuals who are pushing to keep children from falling between the cracks and becoming invisible, such as Amy Dixon, who is running a petition that will do exactly that, bringing these issues to the attention of those who can make a real change. It is, and will be, thanks to these exemplary changes that more support is being offered to children that are virtually invisible across the UK at present.

However, not all children have the option to receive these kinds of provision. There are pockets of excellent practice driven on an individual and local level, but there needs to be systemic change at a policy level, to ensure everyone is supported.

Educational provision for children out of school due to illness appears to be something of a postcode lottery, with some families having to fight for 3 hours of home tuition a week, whilst others are offered 15 hours by default. This is thought to be, in part, due to the open statutory guidance which allows for flexible interpretation of government guidelines, as well as financial limitations schools and city councils face. To improve the lives and outcomes of this group of children, is to create a more accurate view and analysis. This can be done by joining up existing datasets, by asking better questions, and by building a model that predicts future numbers of children from falling outside of the system. This, in turn, will push the issue up the political agenda and drive much needed changes to statutory guidance. Most importantly, it would lead to more support for children that are seemingly invisible across the UK.

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