JMIR Form Res. 2021 Aug 27. doi: 10.2196/28002. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: Social distancing measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the past year have exacerbated loneliness and depression in the United States. While virtual tools exist to improve social connections, there have been limited attempts to assess community-based, virtual methods to promote new social connections.
OBJECTIVE: In this proof-of-concept study, we examined the extent to which Skip the Small Talk (STST), a Boston-based business dedicated to hosting events to facilitate structured, vulnerable conversations between strangers, helped reduce loneliness in a virtual format in the early months of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. We predicted that participants who attended STST virtual events would show a reduction in loneliness, improvement in positive affect, and reduction in negative affect after attending an event. We were also interested in exploring the role of depression symptoms on these results as well as the types of goals participants accomplished by attending STST events.
METHODS: Adult participants who registered for a STST virtual event between March 25 and June 30, 2020 completed a survey before attending the event (pre-event survey; n=64) and a separate survey after attending the event (post-event survey; n=25). Participants reported on their depression symptoms, loneliness, and positive and negative affect. Additionally, participants reported the goals they wished to accomplish as well as those they actually accomplished by attending the STST event.
RESULTS: The four most cited goals that participants hoped to accomplish before attending the STST event included to make new friends, have better/deeper conversations with people, feel less lonely, and to practice social skills. Thirty-one percent of participants who completed the pre-event survey reported depression symptoms that indicated a high risk of a major depressive episode in the preceding two weeks. Of the 25 participants who completed the pre- and post-event surveys, participants reported a significant reduction in loneliness (P = .03, Cohen’s d = 0.48) and negative affect (P < .001, Cohen’s d = 1.52) after attending the STST event compared to before the event. Additionally, depressive symptoms were significantly positively correlated with change in negative affect (P = .03), suggesting that the higher the depression score was prior to attending the STST event, the higher the reduction in negative affect was following the event. Finally, 100% of participants who wished to reduce their loneliness or feel less socially anxious prior to attending the STST event reported that they accomplished those goals after the event.
CONCLUSIONS: Our preliminary assessment suggests that the virtual format of STST was helpful for reducing loneliness and negative affect for participants, including those experiencing depression symptoms, during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. While encouraging, additional research is necessary to demonstrate whether STST has benefits when compared to other social events and interventions and whether such benefits persist beyond the events themselves.
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