Lonely in a crowd: investigating the association between overcrowding and loneliness using smartphone technologies

Authors: Ryan Hammoud, Stefania Tognin, Ioannis Bakolis, Daniela Ivanova, Naomi Fitzpatrick, Lucie Burgess, Michael Smythe, Johanna Gibbons, Neil Davidson, Andrea Mechelli

Journal: Scientific Reports

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-03398-2


Loneliness is a major public health concern with links to social and environmental factors. Previous studies have typically investigated loneliness as a stable emotional state using retrospective cross-sectional designs. Yet people experience different levels of loneliness throughout the day depending on their surrounding environment. In the present study, we investigated the associations between loneliness and social and environmental factors (i.e. overcrowding, population density, social inclusivity and contact with nature) in real-time. Ecological momentary assessment data was collected from participants using the Urban Mind smartphone application. Data from 756 participants who completed 16,602 assessments between April 2018 and March 2020 were used in order to investigate associations between momentary feeling of loneliness, the social environment (i.e. overcrowding, social inclusivity, population density) and the built environment (i.e. contact with nature) using multilevel modelling. Increased overcrowding and population density were associated with higher levels of loneliness; in contrast, social inclusivity and contact with nature were associated with lower levels of loneliness. These associations remained significant after adjusting for age, gender, ethnicity, education and occupation. The positive association between social inclusivity and lower levels of loneliness was more pronounced when participants were in contact with nature, indicating an interaction between the social and built environment on loneliness. The feeling of loneliness changes in relation to both social and environmental factors. Our findings have potential implications for public health strategies and interventions aimed at reducing the burden of loneliness on society. Specific measures, which would increase social inclusion and contact with nature while reducing overcrowding, should be implemented, especially in densely populated cities.