Digital health: Feeling connected in times of lockdown (and beyond)

In our smart society, people have unprecedented means to connect with others including social media and new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. Paradoxically, many people feel lonelier and more disconnected from others and society than ever before. To illustrate, a recent nation-wide survey revealed that 43% of the Dutch population feels lonely. Not only older adults with shrinking social networks, but also young adults are increasingly prone to loneliness and related mental health problems.

Especially during the (present) world-wide COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness and social isolation pose particularly urgent problems for many as social gatherings (at home and in public places such as bars and restaurants) are prohibited. But although actual, physical contact is limited or impossible, people can still ‘feel’ connected to others and the community. As a matter of fact, research suggests that feelings of connectedness are a better predictor of diverse health outcomes than the mere number of social contacts. In other words, feelings of connectedness can play a key role in maintaining good (mental) health when social distancing is required. But how to promote social connectedness?

A growing body of research shows that interacting with nature can promote positive emotions and feelings of connectedness. For instance, people who live nearby nature generally feel happier and more connected to the world at large. However, nature is steadily disappearing in urbanized regions where most of us live. For low SES-families in particular, nature is usually not around the corner. Hence, the question becomes; how to promote contact with nature for all in order to safeguard mental health and feelings of connectedness? Especially in times of lockdown, this challenge is anything but trivial.

A promising strategy seeks to complement actual nature experience with exposure to digital nature, generated via virtual reality software. In the latest study from our running ZonMW-Create Health project, we created immersive digital nature videos simulating a 4-minute walk through nature (see screenshots). Participants worldwide (N = 1200) watched digital nature online during the recent COVID-19 lockdown and filled out a survey assessing feelings of loneliness and social connectedness. Results showed that participants felt more connected to their community after (rather than before) watching digital nature. These findings indicate that digital nature can complement outdoor nature experience when contact with nature is difficult or impossible and can inspire feelings of connectedness.

Research in progress seeks to identify essential nature characteristics (is a wide-open landscape, for instance, better suited to inspire connectedness than a dense forest?) and explores the potential of incorporating multi-sensory elements (including smell and sound) and enhanced interactivity using virtual reality headsets. Once we know how to design digital nature, an equally important question is how to ensure that people can benefit from digital nature regardless of (internet) access and skills. Especially, when considering that those people for whom contact with nature is most troublesome (elderly and low SES-families) are also those with the overall lowest skill levels, ensuring access to digital nature and intuitive, smooth interaction is paramount to safeguarding an inclusive, resilient society.