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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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‘I hope the world will be safer’, says Molly Russell’s father after inquest – video | Technology

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Molly Russell’s father has accused the world’s biggest social media firms of ‘monetising misery’ after an inquest ruled that harmful online content contributed to the 14-year-old’s death.

Ian Russell accused Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, of guiding his daughter on a ‘demented trail of life-sucking content’, after the landmark ruling raised the regulatory pressure on social media companies.

The inquest heard on Friday that Molly, from Harrow, north-west London, had viewed large amounts of content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety on Instagram and Pinterest before she died in November 2017

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Google delays execution of deprecated Chrome extensions • The Register

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Google has delayed its browser extension platform transition for enterprise customers, giving those using managed versions of Chrome with the deprecated Manifest v2 (MV2) extensions an extra six months of support.

The Chocolate Factory has also redefined its deadlines for general Chrome users to make the transition to the new platform, called Manifest v3 (MV3), less of a shock to the system.

“Chrome will take a gradual and experimental approach to turning off Manifest V2 to ensure a smooth end-user experience during the phase-out process,” explained David Li, a product manager at Google, in a blog post. “We would like to make sure developers have the information they need, with plenty of time to transition to the new manifest version and to roll out changes to their users.”

Chrome will take a gradual and experimental approach to turning off Manifest V2 to ensure a smooth end-user experience

Developers, in other words, need more time to rewrite their extension code.

Previously, as of January 2023, Chrome was to stop running MV2 extensions. Enterprise managed Chrome installations had an extra six months with MV2, until June 2023.

The current schedule says MV2 extensions may or may not work in developer-oriented versions of Chrome used outside of enterprises. “Starting in Chrome 112, Chrome may run experiments to turn off support for Manifest V2 extensions in Canary, Dev, and Beta channels,” the timeline says.

And then in June 2023, MV2 extensions may or may not get disabled in any version of Chrome, including the Stable channel used by most people.

New MV2 extensions could no longer be added to the Chrome Web Store in June 2022, and that remains unchanged under the new roadmap; MV2 extensions already available the Chrome Web Store can still be downloaded and can still receive updates.

As of June 2023, MV2 extensions will no longer be visible in the store (so they can’t be newly installed, but can still be updated for existing users).

Come January 2024, nothing will be left to chance: the Chrome Web Store will stop accepting updates to MV2 extensions, all MV2 extensions will be removed from the store, and the MV2 usage in enterprises will end.

Li suggests developers make the transition sooner rather than later “because those [MV2] extensions may stop working at any time following the aforementioned dates.”

In recognition of the confusion among developers trying to adapt their extensions to MV3, Li said Google has implemented new APIs and platform improvements and has created a progress page to provide more transparency with regard to the state of MV2-MV3 transition.

Since 2018, Google has been revising the code that defines what browser extensions can do in Chrome. Its outgoing architecture known as Manifest v2 proved too powerful – it could be used by rogue add-ons to steal data, for example – and Google claimed use of those capabilities hindered browser performance. Critics like the EFF have disputed that.

Coincidentally, those capabilities, particularly the ability to intercept and revise network requests based on dynamic criteria, made Manifest v2 useful for blocking content and privacy-violating tracking scripts.

Under the new Manifest v3 regime, extensions have been domesticated. As a result, they appear to use computing resources more efficiently while being less effective at content blocking.

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Whether or not this results in meaningful performance improvement, the MV3 change has been championed by Google for Chrome and the open source Chromium project, and is being supported by those building atop Chromium, like Microsoft Edge, as well as Apple’s WebKit-based Safari and Mozilla’s Gecko-based Firefox.

However, Brave, Mozilla, and Vivadi have said they intend to continue supporting Manifest v2 extensions for an indeterminate amount of time. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.

Brave, like other privacy-oriented companies and advocacy groups, has made it clear this regime change is not to its liking. “With Manifest V3, Google is harming privacy and limiting user choice,” the developer said via Twitter. “The bottom line, though, is that Brave will still continue to offer leading protection against invasive ads and trackers.”

With Manifest V3, Google is harming privacy and limiting user choice

Google, on its timeline, suggests MV3 is approaching “full feature parity with Manifest V2.”

Extension developers appear to be skeptical about that. On Friday, in response to Google’s timeline revision posted to the Chromium Extension Google Group, a developer forum member who goes by the pseudonym “wOxxOm” slammed Google for posts full of corporate lingo about safety and security and pushed back against its statement about feature parity.

“[T]his definitely sounds reasonable if you don’t know the context, but given the subsequently plotted timeline it becomes a gross exaggeration and a borderline lie, because with the progress rate we all observed over the past years it’ll take at least several years more for MV3 to become reliable and feature-rich enough to replace MV2, not half a year or a year,” wOxxOm posted.

“Neither the issue list nor the announcement acknowledge that MV3 is still half-broken and unusable for anything other than a beta test due to its unreliable registration of service workers that break extensions completely for thousands of users, soon for millions because no one in Chromium has yet found out the exact reason of the bug, hence they can’t be sure they’ll fix it in the next months.”

This may not be the last time Google revises its transition timeline. ®



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Irish Research Council pumps €27m to fund next generation of researchers

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A total of 316 awardees of the IRC’s Government of Ireland programme will receive funding to conduct ‘pioneering’ research.

Postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in Ireland are set to get €27m in funding from the Irish Research Council (IRC) through its flagship Government of Ireland programme.

In an announcement today (30 September), the IRC said that a total of 316 Government of Ireland awards will be given to researchers in the country, including 239 postgraduate scholarships and 77 postdoctoral fellowships.

Awardees under the scheme will conduct research on a broad range of topics, from machine translation and social media to protecting wild bee populations and bioplastics.

“The prestigious awards recognise and fund pioneering research projects along with addressing new and emerging fields of research that introduce creative and innovative approaches across all disciplines, including the sciences, humanities and the arts,” said IRC director Louise Callinan.

Awardees

One of the science-focused postgraduate awardees, University of Galway’s Cherrelle Johnson, is working on the long-term sustainability of bioplastics as an alternative to fossil fuel-based plastics.

Another, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland’s Tammy Strickland, is studying the role of the circadian rhythm, or the sleep-wake cycle, of immune cells in the brain in epilepsy.

Khetam Al Sharou of Dublin City University, one of the postdoctoral researchers to win the award, is looking into the use of machine translation in social media and the associated risks of information distortion.

Meanwhile, Robert Brose from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies is investigating the particles and radiation that are emitted by high-energy sources in our milky way to try and find the most likely sources of life.

Diana Carolina Pimentel Betancurt from Teagasc, the state agency providing research and development in agriculture and related fields, is looking for natural probiotics in native honeybees to mitigate the effect of pesticides.

“Funding schemes like the IRC’s Government of Ireland programmes are vitally important to the wider research landscape in Ireland, as they ensure that researchers are supported at an early stage of their career and are given an opportunity to direct their own research,” Callinan said.

53 early-career researchers across Ireland got €28.5m in funding last month from the SFI-IRC Pathway programme, a new collaborative initiative between Science Foundation Ireland and the IRC. SFI and IRC are expected to merge to form one funding body in the coming years.

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