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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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New Donegal digital hub opens doors to local start-ups and entrepreneurs

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Stranorlar’s new digital hub will provide local workers with hotdesks, reliable internet connectivity, access to local supports and more.

A new digital hub has opened today (17 September) in Stranorlar in Co Donegal. DigiHub at the Base Enterprise Centre aims to support the growth of ICT and digital businesses in Donegal.

The hub will provide the area’s workers, start-ups and entrepreneurs with hotdesk and workspaces on flexible arrangements, as well as office units of various sizes, training facilities and a range of meeting rooms.

The DigiHub was developed as part of the Digiwest programme with funding from the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund and the Connected Hubs Fund, which was launched earlier this year to help promote remote working around the country. The hub is also supported by Donegal County Council and the Western Development Commission.

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The development of digital hubs in rural areas is part of Our Rural Future, the Government’s five-year strategy to revitalise towns and villages, promote remote working and ensure balanced regional development.

Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphries, TD, who launched the new Donegal facility today, said she hoped the hub would entice digital entrepreneurs to move to the Stranorlar area.

“As we phase out restrictions put in place during Covid-19, it’s more relevant than ever to invest in co-working spaces for those who wish to remain in their home counties and avoid long commutes to Dublin and larger cities,” she added.

“The launch of today’s hub in the heart of Stranorlar highlights the appetite for hybrid working in regional Ireland to remain. This fine facility is one of four digital hubs along the western seaboard that received almost €650,000 under my Department’s Rural Regeneration Development Fund.

“All four of these hubs are members of the Connected Hubs initiative, which is the department’s platform of mapping together all of the hubs across the country so that they belong to one single network.”

The Connected Hubs network currently has more than 140 members nationwide.

The Stranorlar hub, which received €67,ooo in funding, will have 23 desks available for short-term and casual hire, while the hub’s offices can accommodate more than 20 tenants. Business units will be made available for permanent hire with the capacity to accommodate an additional 50 tenants.

The hub’s range of supports for start-ups will include one-to-one business mentoring, as well as access to mentoring through a network of support businesses via the Ballybofey and Stranorlar Chamber of Commerce.

It will also provide workers with networking and informal learning opportunities, promotion on its social media channels and it will offer them information on agencies and organisations for assistance.

Internet access, which is a key concern for many remote workers living in rural areas, will be provided by Siro, a joint venture by the ESB and Vodafone to provide homes and businesses with fibre-optic gigabit connectivity.

Siro’s partnership with DigiHub in Stranorlar will bring the total number of remote working hubs around the country using its service to 16.

Kieran Doherty, chair of Basicc, the local social enterprise that manages the Base Enterprise Centre, said: “In order for the area to flourish, we have to be able to connect to any part of the world instantly and gigabit connectivity means that we have the same world-class broadband that is available in international hubs like Tokyo or Singapore.”

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Teenage girls, body image and Instagram’s ‘perfect storm’ | Instagram

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Emily started using Instagram when she was in her mid-teens and found it helpful at first. She used the photo-sharing app to follow fitness influencers, but what began as a constructive relationship with the platform spiralled into a crisis centred on body image. At 19 she was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

“I felt like my body wasn’t good enough, because even though I did go to the gym a lot, my body still never looked like the bodies of these influencers,” says Emily, now a 20-year-old a student who is in recovery.

Emily, who preferred not to use her real name, uses Instagram sparingly now. She is one of many Instagram users whose suffering came to prominence this week with revelations that the platform’s owner, Facebook, seemed to know it was damaging teenage girls’ mental health.

According to internal research leaked to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the app has made body image issues worse for one in three girls and in one Facebook study of teenagers in the UK and the US, more than 40% of Instagram users who said they felt “unattractive” said the feeling began while using the app.

Instagram has more than 1 billion users worldwide and an estimated 30 million in the UK, with Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande among the accounts with hundreds of millions of followers between them. In the UK, the Love Island couple Liam Reardon and Millie Court have already raced to a combined following of nearly 3 million since winning the 2021 title.

Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande has more than 250 million Instagram followers. Photograph: John Shearer/Getty Images for the Recording Academy

Two in five girls (40%) aged 11 to 16 in the UK say they have seen images online that have made them feel insecure or less confident about themselves. This increases to half (50%) in girls aged 17 to 21, according to research by Girlguiding in its annual girls’ attitudes survey.

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the department of media and communications, LSE, describes adolescence for teenage girls as an “arc” that tends to begin with the staple experiences of interest in pets, painting or playing with younger siblings, through to the more confident young woman ready to face the world. But it is the experience in the middle of that parabola that represents a particular challenge, and where Instagram can be most troubling.

“It is at that point where they are assailed with many answers to their dilemmas and a prominent answer at the moment is that it might be what they look like, that it matters what they bought,” says Livingstone, who next week is due to give evidence to MPs and peers scrutinising the draft UK online safety bill, which imposes a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content.

Facebook’s in-depth research into the photo-sharing app stated that Instagram had a deeper effect on teenage girls because it focused more on the body and lifestyle, compared with TikTok’s emphasis on performance videos such as dancing, and Snapchat’s jokey face features. “Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” said the Facebook study. The leaked research pointed to the app’s Explore page, where an algorithm tailors the photos and videos that a user sees, potentially creating a spiral of harmful content.

“Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” said the research.

Livingstone says a key feature of the online safety bill will be its provisions on regulating the algorithms that constantly tailor and tweak what you view according to your perceived needs and tastes – and can push teenage girls into that vortex of esteem-damaging content. “There is a lot to be done about algorithms and AI [artificial intelligence].”

Beeban Kidron, the crossbench peer who sits on the joint committee into the online safety bill and was behind the recent introduction of a children’s privacy code, says Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog, will have a vital role in scrutinising algorithms.

“The value in algorithmic oversight for regulators, is that the decisions that tech companies make will become transparent, including decisions like FB took to allow Instagram to target teenage girls with images and features that ended in anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Algorithmic oversight is the key to society wrestling back some control.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport says the bill will address those concerns. “As part of their duty of care, companies will need to mitigate the risks of their algorithms promoting illegal or harmful content, particularly to children. Ofcom will have a range of powers to ensure they do this, including the ability to request information and enter companies’ premises to access data and equipment.”

Liam Reardon and Millie Court
Liam Reardon and Millie Court have a combined Instagram following of 3 million since winning Love Island 2021. Photograph: Matt Frost/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

For others, there is a wider issue of educating the young how to navigate a world dominated by social media. Deana Puccio, co-founder of the Rap project, which visits schools across the UK and abroad to discuss issues such as consent, online and offline safety and building confidence in body image and self-esteem, says the bill should be accompanied by a wider education drive.

“We, parents, educators, politicians need to equip our young people with the tools, the analytical skills to make healthy choices for themselves. Because they will get access to whatever they want to. They are better at navigating the online world than we are.”

Puccio adds that teenagers should be encouraged to make their social media posts reflect a more realistic vision of the world. “We need to start building up people’s confidence to post real-life ups and downs.”

The head of Instagram risked fanning criticism of the app on Thursday with comments that compared social media’s impact on society to that of cars. “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy. And I think social media is similar,” said Adam Mosseri.

Facebook referred the Guardian to a blogpost by Karina Newton, the head of public policy at Instagram, who said the internal research showed “our commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with, and informs all the work we do to help those experiencing these issues”.

The Instagram revelations came as part of a WSJ investigation into Facebook, in which the newspaper revealed that Facebook gives high-profile users special treatment, that changes to its news feed algorithm in 2018 made the platform’s users angrier and more divisive, and that employees had warned Facebook was being used by drug cartels and human traffickers in developing countries.

Responding to the algorithm and drug cartel allegations, Facebook said divisions had existed in society long before its platform appeared and that it had a “comprehensive strategy” for keeping people safe in countries where there was a risk of conflict and violence.

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Apple, Google yank opposition voting strategy app from Russian software stores • The Register

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A tactical-voting app built by allies of Vladimir Putin’s jailed political opponent Alexei Navalny is now unavailable in Russian Apple and Google app stores following threats of fines from the Kremlin.

According to state-owned news agency TASS, Russian lawmaker Andrei Klimov told reporters on Thursday that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office sent statutory notices to Google and Apple ordering a takedown of the Navalny app on the grounds it was collecting personal data of Russian citizens and sought to interfere in the nation’s elections. Refusal to do so would result in penalties.

“The app particularly deliberately and illegally spreads election campaign materials in the interests of some candidates vying for positions in elective agencies or against the interests of such,” Klimov said.

Apple and Google, which say they comply with local laws where they operate, removed the app in Russia, willingly or unwillingly contributing to what Navalny’s supporters called political censorship in Russia. The app remains available outside the country. Those in Russia who already have the application may still be able to use it.

With the app stores out of the way, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov took time to throw some shade at the US government. “We have reason to believe that the US authorities are also not completely helpless on this particular issue,” Lavrov stated.

President Putin’s allies are already sowing seeds of doubt in the election process, claiming foreign agents in election monitoring org Golos are plotting to discredit the results, despite the expectation that Putin’s United Russia party will remain in power.

The election takes place from September 17, and will run for three days. Many cities are electing lawmakers to the State Duma – the lower house of parliament – via electronic voting. Putin himself will vote online. Also included in the election are the selection of nine Russian region heads and 39 regional parliaments. It’s an important election for Putin as he would rather retain tight control of the country as the 2024 presidential poll approaches.

The verboten app in question tells users who to tactically vote for, out of those running on behalf of as many as 14 parties, to prevent Kremlin-favored candidates from winning. It uses a system dubbed Smart Voting that was devised by Navalny. However, the vast majority of anti-Putin candidates have already been blocked from running, including those associated with Navalny.

Yesterday, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption organization that developed the app, tweeted what appears to be an email from Apple explaining the reasoning for removing the application: prosecutors claimed the software would interfere with the elections, and that the foundation had been deemed an extremist org. As such the app is illegal in Russia. Its website was earlier this month blocked in the country by authorities.

Zhdanov called the removal a “mockery of common sense,” and a “huge mistake.” A tweet today from Zhdanov said in Russian:

Navalny – leader of the opposition Russia of the Future party, a Putin critic, and an anti-corruption campaigner – suffered Novichok nerve-agent poisoning in 2020 that he accused the president of orchestrating. The Kremlin denied any involvement, though it did arrest him when he returned to Russia after seeking medical treatment in Berlin for the poisoning. While receiving this treatment outside of Russia, he violated his parole regarding a 2014 embezzlement conviction – which he claims was brought against him for political reasons – and was sentenced to 30 months behind bars.

His poisoning and detention was condemned by the West, and sparked anti-Kremlin protests in Russia. In a response to that unrest, the Russian government throttled Twitter in March and ordered social networks to delete posts related to any “participation in unauthorized mass events” as they deemed them illegal adolescent activities.

Google received a $40,700 fine for failing to fully comply.

Today, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal body that monitors, controls and censors Russian mass media, announced it had sent a letter to Twitter to demand why Moscow’s City Election Committee account had been restricted. The missive accused Twitter of foreign interference in the election. ®



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