Increased loneliness was reported among those who communicated virtually during the pandemic.
The study surveyed over 6,500 people over 60 in the UK and the US both before and during the pandemic.
The results were "surprising but understandable" as virtual contact is not the same as meeting in person, said one of the authors.
Digital communication tools became an indispensable way for people to interact during the COVID-19 pandemic as countries and cities went into lockdowns.
But for those above 60, virtual contact may be more harmful to mental wellbeing compared to no contact at all, according to a study published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.
Using data collected from 5,148 respondents above 60 in the UK, and 1,391 respondents in the UK before and during the pandemic, researchers from the Lancaster University in the UK and University of British Columbia in Canada, showed an uptick in loneliness for those who had more inter-household virtual contact during the pandemic.
It also found that while face-to-face contact improved mental health, there were no mental health benefits associated with increased digital media interactions, which was defined as contact through social media, calls, texts, audio, and video chats. And in the UK, there was even a decline in overall mental wellbeing for those over 60, while US respondents did not see an overall change.
The results were "both surprising but understandable," one of the study's authors, Yang Hu, a researcher from Lancaster University, told Insider in an email.
Yang said he was surprised that "virtual contact is associated with greater loneliness and mental distress than no contact," but also noted that "virtual contact is not qualitatively equivalent," adding this could also be due to increased digital burnout and stress experienced by older adults.
The study could have implications for the increased digitizing of elderly support, said Yang, as it shows that virtual contact alone could have negative implications for mental wellbeing in seniors, and a "digitally enhanced" future with in-person interactions could be a better strategy.
In a similar vein, a study published in February in The Journals of Gerontology found that online communication, when used alongside other traditional modes of communication, could help stave off dementia in the elderly.
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