Friday, 29 April 2011

Loneliness, isolation and social media JRF have published a useful and clear literature and practice review for the Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness programme. It's worth reiterating a few points. As I've noted before - loneliness is not the same as isolation - it's an unwelcome form of isolation which has social (and by extension economic) consequences; loneliness is not age-related (the Gulbenkian Campaign to End Loneliness is focused on people in old age, and I fear this serves to perpetuate the social dismissal of the issue among other age groups); loneliness is quite separate to the sense of belonging or not belonging to a place; and the way we address it could be influenced by the power of social media in strengthening and sustaining local connections. There seems to be a widespread assumption that loneliness is increasing. The Mental Health Foundation's excellent report last year suggested as much but does not seem to confirm it. I think we should be alert but sceptical. As it happens, with a little time to do some catching up over the past few days, I've managed to read one of Keith Hampton's recent papers, on the relationship of internet and mobile phone use to network size and diversity. Among the points made with characteristic thoroughness are the following: reports that social isolation has increased significantly in the USA since 1985 seem to have been exaggerated and in fact isolation may have declined; and there is no evidence that the use of internet or mobile phones diminishes the size or diversity of people's core networks. Specific uses of social media were found to have a positive relationship to network size and diversity. The Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness programme includes a question about new media, but JRF's approach to technology has always been tentative, not to say reluctant. It would be good if they would grab the initiative in this case, and really open up the potential here. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the evidence on local online channels gives us plenty to go on. Previously: Local social ties have weakened, but where's the evidence? Loneliness and mental distress
Public space: overseas thoughts from back home Having referenced Hugh Schofield's thoughts recently on 'the fact French and other European societies are more socially-minded,' I spent most of the past week in southern France. I'm just unpacking and found a few loose thoughts about public space. I'm certainly not in a position to imply any conclusions about cultural differences, these are just reflections. When I first went to France, it must have been about 1967, I remember commenting on the constant background sound of emergency sirens in urban areas. I'd make the same observation now, it's so dominant. Who knows, there may just be some connection to the extraordinary French appetite for minor road collisions: there were four within metres of me at various times over four days. So it's a relief to observe that the French seem far less likely than the English to use their mobile phones while driving. I saw only one instance. In terms of offensive behaviour in public space, using a mobile while driving displays stark disrespect: it says unambiguously, 'my conversation is more important than your safety'. That's one reason why it's depressing to be returning to the British public realm. Public space in England is mcuh more information-intensive. In France there are fewer advertisements and signs - in train stations for instance, which can be remarkably dull - and on the trains and buses there are far fewer announcements. If you get on an inter-city train in the UK you are bombarded with announcements, about your ticket validity, destinations and bacons burgers, along with concerted attempts to catch you out and criminalise you. When you look out the window at a station, all sorts of information competes for your attention. Perhaps it mirrors the difference in food cultures. In France, the public realm doesn't rush you. And the more restrained approach to information provision may have subtle social consequences. If you need to know something, you ask - that is to say, you engage with others around you. Perhaps we have here an instance of Kev's Automatic Door Principle, which notes that there are distinct advantages to using technology to open doors for us: especially for people who use wheelchairs, also of course if you are overloaded with luggage; but automatic doors do not have to be held open for the lady with the stick just behind you, or for that bloke with the buggy just approaching. This is technology confiscating tiny social interactions. Information overload in the UK could be doing something similar. Uninvited encounters on the street seem far less frequent in France. If I walk through a town in England I know I will be accosted by people thrusting pieces of paper at me, people asking me for money or opinions or time. It could be argued that this is an acceptable part of the bustle of the urban public realm. I did note however that on the one occasion last week when I was offered a leaflet in the street, the lady said 'Bonjour m'sieur' as...

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