Human touch in a pandemic world. Impact and Interventions.

Human touch in a pandemic world. Impact and Interventions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered our lives in ways both large and small, affecting everything from the way we work, attend school, socialize, and even shop for basic necessities. Of all these changes, perhaps no area of our lives has been affected more than the way that we relate to others.

"Three out of four respondents said that isolation has made them realize how important physical touch is for health."

Touch during the pandemic: restricted, but more important than ever

The new study shows that touch remains very important to people around the globe – despite or maybe even because of the virus. Last year’s study revealed that 87% of people believe that human touch is key to a happy, fulfilled life. This year’s study shows that number has risen slightly, to 88%. Furthermore, three out of four respondents said that isolation has made them realize how important physical touch is for health. As the data illustrates, we are increasingly aware of the importance of touch in our lives now that we can no longer engage in touch as freely as we did before, when every interaction didn’t require complex mental calculations around the level of risk. In short, our forced isolation has underscored the importance of human touch for our health and well-being.

"More than two-thirds of respondents said that there were more barriers to touch today compared to a year ago."

New barriers to human touch

Before the pandemic, common barriers to human touch included things like lack of time or insecurity about social norms and what type of touch is appropriate and when. The new results show that these traditional barriers are less of a concern these days. In general, more people are spending more time at home, and their lives are less busy. There is also less confusion around social norms, given that most people understand that touch corresponds with risk of contagion. However, overall, there are more barriers to touch than ever before. More than two-thirds of respondents said that there were more barriers to touch today compared to a year ago.

As a society, the data shows that we have accepted these barriers for now and do not seek more forms of touch. Four out of five respondents globally indicated that they avoid touch rituals like handshakes, kissing or short hugs. This is especially true in hard-hit countries like Brazil, South Africa, Italy and France, suggesting that people living in countries that were heavily affected by the pandemic are being especially cautious in their approach to human touch.

Rates of response based on amount of touch people experienced personally in the last year., Source: Mindline Research 2020

The worldwide level of human touch during the pandemic

In fact, many people surveyed said that their level of human touch during the pandemic has decreased for both their inner circle (family, partners or close friends) and outer circle (colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors). More than a third said that inner circle touch has decreased, while 40% said that outer circle touch has decreased. The decrease in outer circle touch is to be expected, as more people isolate and limit their physical contact to those in their household. Decreases in touch among the inner circle may at first seem counterintuitive, but not when you consider the number of people who live with elderly, immunocompromised or other people who would be at high risk should they get sick, and the fact that most people do not live in the same household with their close friends. Additionally, places like Italy, South Africa and South Korea, where lockdown measures were strictly enforced, have seen significant decreases in the amount of touch within inner but especially their outer social circles. In Italy, more than half of respondents said that their level of outer circle physical touch had decreased since last year. In South Korea, 49% of respondents indicated a decrease, and in South Africa, 46%. South Korea, in particular, is noteworthy because they engaged in less touch than other countries to begin with – making their decreases in touch even more dramatic.

Surprisingly, however, around half of the people surveyed said that their level of human touch during the pandemic has not changed significantly. 46% of respondents globally said that the amount of inner circle touch they experience has not changed in the past year, while 51% said that outer circle touch has not changed. To understand why, we have to look closer at the data, which reveals noteworthy geographic differences in touch behavior. In Germany, Australia, the UK and the U.S., touch behavior has changed less than in other countries. Despite the severity of the outbreaks, fewer people reported changes in the amount of touch they shared with their outer circle, compared to other countries. In Germany, nearly two-thirds of people said their level of outer circle touch had not changed in the past year. In Australia, the UK and the U.S., more than half of respondents said the same. One explanation is that these countries are not “touch friendly” cultures to begin with. We know from our previous global survey that Germany, the UK, Australia and the US are the least touch-friendly countries, so fewer changes in behavior would be warranted. It’s also possible that, in these countries, skepticism about the severity of the pandemic and the necessity of lockdown regulations has translated to fewer observable changes in touch behavior.

Finally, for some groups, the level of human touch has actually increased during the pandemic. People living in households with at least one child, and young people aged 16-19 were nearly twice as likely to report increases in inner circle touch compared to other groups – not surprising given that many families are spending more time together at home. However, young people and single parents were also nearly twice as likely to say their outer circle touch has increased, as well. It seems that with these groups, the need for human connection and touch is considerably greater than their fear of catching the virus or passing it on to others, who might be more at risk.

“Isolation makes me realize how important touch is for our health.”

“Isolation makes me crave for touch more than before.”

“Isolation makes me feel lonelier than I have ever felt in my entire life before.”

“I miss touch and have to make up for it after the crisis.”

“Isolation makes me think about who and how often I touch others.”

"The forced isolation has made one out of two people around the world feel lonely."

Lonely people report a hug deficit

Rates of approval among those who feel lonely vs. who do not feel lonely:
“I often wish I could get more hugs from others.”

Lonely and in need of Human Touch: singles, single parents and 50+

While we can observe differences in touch among countries based on their approach to the pandemic, the NIVEA data shows that individual circumstances also play a significant role in people’s well-being during the crisis, regardless of where they live. A person’s age, whether they live alone or with other people, and whether they are a parent are all factors in their physical and mental health and ability to connect with others through touch. As the data illustrates, some groups are more affected than others.

 

Lonely people

The first group of people who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and subsequent isolation are those who describe themselves as lonely. According to the survey, that’s a significant portion of the global population. The forced isolation has made one out of two people around the world feel lonely, sometimes even lonelier than ever before in their lives. The data also reveals a strong connection between loneliness and touch: 81% of respondents who indicated that they often feel lonely would like to receive more hugs from others, compared to 45% who said that they do not feel lonely. The association between touch and loneliness seems to increase with age and also is larger for single households. Clearly, lack of human touch can be viewed as a driver of loneliness, while engaging in touch can help reduce it.

Living in countries with less physical touch

This connection between loneliness and touch is particularly visible in countries where less physical touch tends to be the societal norm. In Germany, almost nine out of ten people who often feel lonely said that they wish they could get more hugs from others, compared to only 43% who do not feel lonely. An alarming difference of 44 percentage points, showing to what extent loneliness puts people at a disadvantage. In Australia, the UK , the U.S. and South Korea, the difference was slightly lower, yet still remarkably high (around 40 percentage points). By contrast, the connection is weaker in countries with generally higher levels of touch in everyday life, such as Brazil (difference of 21 percentage points), Italy (difference of 28 percentage points) and France (difference of 33 percentage points). These numbers are a reminder to us all to include and reach out to people who might feel lonely, especially in countries where touch is not a frequent part of everyday life. The touch people do receive – even if it is only a daily handshake with the mail carrier - plays an even more important role in fighting loneliness.

Singles and single parents

Another group that has been hit hard by the effects of lockdowns and isolation is those who live in smaller households – namely singles and single parents. Three out of four people who live alone said that physical touch is not a daily occurrence in their lives, and more than half said that they often feel lonely. For single parents, this number rises to nearly two-thirds. Single parents were also more likely to say that they wished they could receive more hugs from others – 69%, compared to the global average of 61%. Without another adult in the household to share the responsibilities of childcare and remote schooling, or simply to commiserate with during this stressful period, adults living in smaller households are having a hard time.

People aged 50-69

People aged 50-69 have also been particularly affected, as they experience almost no touch from their outer circles these days. According to the survey’s touch diaries, one-third of people aged 50-69 did not experience any physical contact during the full week before the interview. Nearly three out of four said there were more barriers to touch today than a year ago, higher than the global average. Interestingly, however, only 57% of this group said that they would like to receive more hugs, lower than the global average of 61% - suggesting that many older adults have adjusted their expectations of touch to align with their experience.

Teenagers

In contrast with the groups mentioned above, there is one group that appears to be relatively resilient in the face of the crisis: teenagers. For nearly a third of respondents aged 16-19, the level of inner circle touch has increased since the pandemic began, likely as a result of spending more time with family, enjoying the bonding with parents and siblings and overcoming the crisis with all its challenges together. They are more likely than other groups to say that their relationships with those they do touch have deepened (72% versus global average of 62%). They are also far more likely than other groups to say that they spend more time on social media now than before (82%, compared to the global average of 61%). For this group, it appears that these workarounds – more time with family and inner circle and increased social media usage – somewhat compensate for the disruption to their normal routine and lack of outer circle touch.

"Every third person said that the current level of human touch in daily life is too low."

Making up for lost time in our post-pandemic future

While the pandemic is not over, around the world people are eagerly anticipating a future that will allow more opportunities for human touch. After many months of lockdowns and forced social isolation, NIVEA’s data shows that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of touch in our lives and could be a remedy against loneliness – though the way that we connect with others through touch will likely change for the foreseeable future.

According to the data, human touch in the post-pandemic world will focus on quality over quantity – in other words, on the inner circle. More than a third of respondents globally expect inner circle touch to increase after the crisis, while outer circle touch is expected to decline in the long run as our current behavior changes become permanent habits. Nearly half of people in Brazil, South Africa UK, US and Italy, in particular, expect their inner circle touch to increase after the crisis, perhaps as a way to make up for lost time. However, while outer circle touch is expected to decrease overall in comparison to pre-pandemic times, a quarter of young people aged 16-19 globally even expect more touch in their outer circle in the long run. No doubt, they have a lot to catch up on and are clearly eager to engage in more touch, once we can tear down the corona-walls.

Across all groups, the pandemic has left us hungry for skin-to-skin touch, much in the same way we experience hunger for food. In all countries surveyed, every third person said that the current level of human touch in daily life is too low, and three out of five people surveyed want to make up for the current lack of human touch after the crisis. Additionally, the data reveals a strong longing for more human touch after the crisis among highly social countries that were hit hard by the pandemic, namely Brazil and Italy. More than three out of four Brazilians and nearly three out of four Italians said that isolation has made them crave physical contact more than ever before. And who can blame them? None of us are likely to forget the images of empty streets and deserted cafes when Italy went into early lockdown.

"In the future we won’t take those moments of connection for granted."

A new appreciation of the power of touch

One thing is clear: it might take time to return to our pre-pandemic levels of touch, yet the pandemic has already left a lasting impression on our hearts and minds – and also on our skin. We now know how it feels to be unable to touch those we love, and all of the isolation and loneliness that comes with that deprivation. If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it’s that the pandemic has given us a new appreciation of the power of touch for our emotional, physical and mental health. In the future, when we can share a hug, a handshake or a cuddle without fear, we won’t take those moments of connection for granted. We will spend more time with loved ones, affirm our bonds with each other, and connect through touch once again.

About the Study

The NIVEA research was conducted by mindline, an independent research institute, as an online survey of 11,706 people in the following 9 countries (approximately 1,000 respondents per country): Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, and the US. Survey respondents were between 16 – 69 years of age, and were a representative sample based on gender, age, region, and occupational status. The database for this study is from April (week 17) until August (week 32) 2020, the European field work will continue until October.

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