Some chatbots and apps try to act as a "friend," while others attempt to mimic psychotherapy sessions
  • To stem feelings of loneliness exacerbated by the COVID-19 quarantine, apps and software programs are springing up to offer companionship, advice.
  • The pandemic boosted personal technology products designed to battle loneliness.
  • According to a recent survey, feelings of loneliness have remained stable due largely to the fact that virtually everyone has been in quarantine and is having similar experiences. 

For some in quarantine, with COVID-19 has come loneliness. And with loneliness comes a growing number of apps and software programs designed to somewhat stem that feeling.

“Perhaps this period has brought into focus how important social connection is for our happiness,” Meghan L. Meyer, assistant professor and director of the Social Neuroscience Lab at Dartmouth University, told Karma. “Suddenly, not being able to interact with people we used to may have reminded us just how valuable those interactions are to our well-being.”

Because the COVID-19 lockdowns almost immediately found people replacing live interaction with virtual interaction in Zoom hangouts, Meyer said people had clearly made it a priority. “This quick pivot suggests that people will figure out ways to connect,” she said, “Perhaps because it’s so vital for us.”

Despite some surveys showing that feelings of loneliness shot up during the pandemic, a study published Monday by the American Psychological Association disputes those findings. Martina Luchetti, assistant professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine, said she and her fellow researchers were surprised by the results of their study and found the resilience remarkable.

“The pandemic is something that everyone is going through, and just knowing that you are not alone and that everyone is going through the same restrictions and difficulties may be enough in the short term to keep feelings of loneliness down,” Luchetti said in a statement. She and her team polled Americans in three different time periods beginning in January and concluding in late April and found no appreciable difference in feelings of loneliness.

Maybe technology had blunted the pandemic’s effects on people’s feelings. 

Zoom Video Communications experienced explosive growth with its high-definition Zoom app since the pandemic began, according to Business Insider. It’s not only a go-to medium for quarantined workers to stage business meetings, but its widespread popularity for personal use has manifested in Zoom happy hours, family reunions and dinners, and parties for birthdays, anniversaries and religious holidays as a substitute for in-person gatherings. The mobile app intelligence company SensorTower recently ranked Zoom No. 12 among the hundreds of free apps for iPhone users.

Replika, an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that serves as a digital companion to users, has seen its downloads double in the months of lockdown due to COVID-19 and individual user’s messages have gone from 40 to 75 daily, a company spokeswoman told Karma. The bot asks its user, for example, how they are, as a friend would do, and then builds on the user’s answers to create a profile so it can then learn to ask more targeted and personalized questions as the user regularly engages with it. Users can develop emotional attachments to the bot, according to Quartz. The 2013 movie Her explored how Joaquin Phoenix’s character developed passionate feelings toward an AI virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Other apps and programs attempt to fill in for a psychotherapist. Happify offers users science-based games and activities in an attempt to overcome mental health challenges. Youper uses an AI tool that draws from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to ask questions about thought patterns and behaviors and then personalizes its answers. Sanvello also employs CBT to prod the user to make sound decisions. And TalkLife provides a peer-to-peer community from a group of volunteers who the company has trained to discuss depression and other mental health matters with users.

While these virtual aids can be helpful, it’s best to view them merely as auxiliary, and not replacements for human interaction. In fact, a ValuePenguin survey found that 1 in 10 respondents believed that virtual video chats and phone calls only increased feelings of loneliness.

Dartmouth’s Meyer said some research has shown that lonely people are more likely to anthropomorphize objects, adding that attributing human characteristics to these loneliness-fighting apps may help their users.

“These apps may actually be more effective in lonelier people precisely because it’s easier for them to anthropomorphize these apps and virtual assistants,” Meyer said. “But research is needed to really make that claim.”