social inclusion

Combatting loneliness in later life: Online and offline connections and friendships via online photography

Photo by  fotografierende  from  Pexels

Age UK’s latest research has found that if we don’t tackle loneliness in later life, there will
be 2 million people over 50 in England by 2026 who will often feel lonely (Age UK, 2018). Loneliness will have an adverse impact on their wellbeing and quality of their lives.

Loneliness is ‘deprivation of social contact, the lack of people available or willing to share social and emotional experiences, a state where an individual has the potential to interact with others but is not doing so, and there is a discrepancy between the actual and desired interaction with others’ (Victor, et al., 2005). Loneliness can be as harmful to health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness causes people to have a greater risk of cognitive decline and an increased chance of developing clinical dementia. There is also evidence that lonely people are more likely to visit a GP or A&E and more likely to enter local authority funded residential care. 

Tackling loneliness in later life is an important way of improving people’s health and wellbeing. The UK government published the loneliness strategy in 2018 and set out an agenda for reducing loneliness. A key aspect of this strategy was the roll-out of social prescribing schemes across England.

Social prescribing

Social prescribing “is a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer patients to a link worker - to provide them with a face to face conversation during which they can learn about the possibilities and design their own personalised solutions, i.e. ‘co-produce’ their ‘social prescription’- so that people with social, emotional or practical needs are empowered to find solutions which will improve their health and wellbeing, often using services provided by the voluntary and community sector” (Social Prescribing Network). The aim of social prescribing is that link workers will help reduce the workload of GPs. A link worker will help patients find suitable community activities to improve their health and wellbeing and for individuals to take control of their mental and physical health. A person who is lonely may not have a medical condition and may just need encouragement to link up with activities (e.g. local walking group, or a pilates class) in their neighbourhood and local community. 

Indeed our previous research (Minocha et al., 2015) has shown if people aged 55 years and over were are out and about in the community – for example, volunteering, or participating in local walking groups, or helping in the local church, felt less lonely than the ones who didn’t have a reason or motivation to venture out from their homes. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that social prescription initiatives such as arts, creativity, physical activity, learning new skills, volunteering, mutual aid and befriending result in improved mental health and social connectedness of the individuals concerned.

Sharing photographs online

Over the last year, we (researchers at The Open University and Oxford Brookes University) have been investigating how sharing photographs online can help alleviate loneliness in people aged 60 and over. The research programme is funded by Sir Halley Stewart Trust.

Sharing photographs online has improved social connectedness both online and offline. People make new friends when they are out and about in the community to take photos. Then by posting photos online, they are building connections and making friends both online.

There is a common perception that older people find it hard to make new friends and they get lonely as their friends pass away – but our data has shown that it is possible to make new friends through sharing of an artefact such as a photograph on photo-sharing sites. In our research, we have spoken to several users of the blipfoto site, an online photography journal where users post a photo a day.

Mo’s story

One of our participants in late 60s (Mo) has been posting a photo for 10 years on blipfoto explained about the advantages of finding a photo every day to post on the site:

It becomes a bit of a habit. Just something that you do. It encourages me to walk, you know, to find a photo. It encourages me to talk to people that I wouldn’t normally talk to. I’ve made a lot of friends just out on the street.

I live by the sea, along the seafront. If I want to take a photo of somebody doing something I’ll try to ask them is it okay if I do this. So, I’ve actually made quite a few good friends because I’ve taken a photograph of them. Explained why I wanted to do it. They’ve been quite happy for me to post a picture. A couple of years later we’re still speaking. It has made me quite a few good friends.

When I asked Mo whether she struggles to find a photo to post every day, she replied,

No. There’s always something to take a photo of. If you’ve had a boring day it’s perfectly fine to take a boring photo. If you check my journal you will see that some of my pictures are completely boring. If I’ve had a boring day that’s fine to- I never have a problem finding a photo. I’ve never missed a day and thought, “I’ll just give today a miss because I haven’t taken a decent photo.” I take a photo and post it.

Jen’s story 

One of our other participants (Jen) shared the health-status of her husband (who was suffering from cancer and later succumbed to it) with family and friends on WhatsApp through text and pictures. The WhatsApp group was set up by her daughter. She continues to use this group and other WhatsApp groups (for example, one that involves only her daughters and sister) to receive and send photos. While Jen is recovering from a recent operation and is house-bound, the photographs that she receives from her daughters and the ones she sends to them encourage conversation, keep them informed about their welfare and for her close-family to know that she is well.

I suppose it’s about connections, connections with them. …. I think it’s [photograph] an added dimension to keeping in touch, because I was thinking if there weren’t the photos, pre all this WhatsAppery, it was text messages, so it was words. “We’re off to the Anniversary Games. We’ll ring tomorrow,” or something, whereas now there might be a picture from the train. I don’t know. It’s about making connections. It is about feeling less isolated. I’m learning to live on my own.

Jen explained how sharing of photos are keeping her connected with the immediate family (daughters and younger sister).

I suppose it’s reciprocal because they [Jen’s daughters] do like to see, if I go off for a weekend or go out somewhere, they will sometimes nudge me and say, “Hey, where are your pics?” because I expect pics from them. So I sometimes have to say to my friends, “I must take a picture. The girls [daughters] want to know that I’m doing something, I’m having a happy day, or I’m out and about. I’m not just lurking in the house.” No, that’s putting it a bit crudely. It’s hard to specify, quantify the value of it all. 

Concluding thoughts

While we understand that taking photos and then sharing them online may not interest everybody and particularly when it requires digital skills and people may have concerns about privacy and security, it may be worth exploring how creative artefacts when shared (such as old photos), arts or crafts, etc. can stimulate connections, foster friendships and help alleviate loneliness. 


The preliminary results from our project are captured in this report: Report (pdf file, 9 MB) The funding has been kindly provided by Sir Halley Stewart Trust.


Age UK, Loneliness Research and Resources,

Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J., Bowling, A. and Bond, J. (2005) The prevalence of, and risk factors for, loneliness in later life: a survey of older people in Great Britain, Ageing and Society, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 357 -375.

The Social prescribing network,

Social prescribing is a vital part of treatment to tackle loneliness, or

Minocha, Shailey; Holland, Caroline; McNulty, Catherine; Banks, Duncan and Palmer, Jane (2015). Social isolation and loneliness in people aged 55 and over in Milton Keynes. The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. Available at:


Professor Shailey Minocha, The Open University 

Dr Sarah Quinton, Oxford Brookes University

Dr Caroline Holland, The Open University

Ms Catherine McNulty, The Open University

Addressing loneliness in older people through photo-sharing on social media platforms

Scenes from our research workshops involving people aged over 60 years at Oxford Brookes University and at The Open University

About the project

In Sir Halley Stewart Trust-funded project, Mitigating loneliness, social isolation and enhancing wellbeing in older people through photo-sharing on social media platforms, our aim has been to investigate the value of photograph sharing through social media websites as a mitigator of loneliness and enabler of wellbeing of older people, aged 60 years and over.

The project is being conducted at The Open University (OU) and at Oxford Brookes University (OBU). We have been working in close collaboration with local charities such as Age UK Milton Keynes, Silver Robin in Oxford, local camera/photography clubs and with the alumni (retired colleagues) of our individual institutions.

We are addressing the interlinked issues of ageing, loneliness, social isolation and wellbeing in the creative activity of taking photographs and sharing them online via email, cloud-storage applications (e.g. Dropbox, iCloud), photo-sharing applications (e.g. Google Photos) and social media websites and apps (e.g. Flickr, Instagram, blipfoto).

Loneliness in later life

The October 2018 policy paper by government outlines a strategy for tackling loneliness and highlights the importance of social relationships to people’s health and wellbeing. By social wellbeing of people, they imply the personal relationships and social support networks and the way these can bring happiness, comfort and resilience, adding to overall wellbeing. Social engagement, i.e. making social and emotional connections with people and the community, is the primary driver for improved wellbeing in older adults. Social engagement provides older people with resources to cope with life changes associated with ageing.

Our previous research with Age UK Milton Keynes has shown that online social engagement helps in alleviating social isolation and loneliness – especially if older people are able to match online interactions with their interests.

Over the last few years, photography has become easier with cameras integrated into smart mobile phones and Tablets.  Through a pilot study of the online photography journal called, we found that taking photos and noticing details of life around them makes people feel less alone; and online conversations around pictures with people of all ages enhances their psychological wellbeing.

Interim report

In the preliminary investigations of our current project (following the pilot study mentioned above), our participants conveyed the following benefits:

  • opportunities for improved mental and physical wellbeing,

  • inter-generational communication,

  • for maintaining relationships with the family as well as making new connections, and

  • enhanced creativity skills.

‘now I am retired I am actually finding it [photography] is getting me out, making me go out but it’s also about meeting people all over the world on Flicker and stuff like that. I’m talking to people I would never have dreamed of talking to at any other time’

We are conscious that social benefits of being online can’t be utilised by all – especially, if they are incapacitated by their age, or don’t have the digital skills or access to the internet. Due to continued efforts by local charities such as Age UK and Carers UK, older people are being supported to get online through training and technical support. People who are now retiring (in late 50s or early 60s) would have gained digital skills in their workplaces.

The preliminary results from our project are captured in this report: Report (pdf file, 9 MB)

Next steps

By the end of this project, we aim to provide research-informed evidence to show how photography and online sharing can help towards social connectivity of older people. The results from this project will provide actionable insights for organisations that support older people in later life.

Project team

Professor Shailey Minocha, The Open University 

Dr Sarah Quinton, Oxford Brookes University

Dr Caroline Holland, The Open University

Ms Catherine McNulty, The Open University

Reflections on our virtual reality projects - part 2

In this second part, we continue with the first part of our reflections on virtual reality (VR) projects in the previous blog post.

Google Expeditions

Students looking at the Google Expedition of solar system via Google Cardboard, a Virtual Reality viewer

Students looking at the Google Expedition of solar system via Google Cardboard, a Virtual Reality viewer

The desktop-based and graphics-intensive virtual reality applications that we discussed in part 1 (previous blog-post) have given way to smartphone-driven virtual reality (VR). Smartphone-driven VR has democratised the use of virtual reality as it has become accessible.

Virtual reality apps such as Google Expeditions run on a smart phone. You need viewers of the kind shown in the picture above called Google Cardboard. The virtual reality viewers such as Google Cardboard and Daydream have two lenses, and just as it with our eyes, these two lens combine the images together to give the stereoscopic effect.

In Google-funded project, we have conducted research on Google Expeditions (GEs) to investigate the role that this virtual reality app could play in education. 

Google Expeditions (GEs) are guided field trips to places that students experience on a smartphone through a VR viewer called Google Cardboard. The GE app (available for Android and iOS platforms) has more than 500 expeditions. An expedition comprises of 360 degree photospheres of a location (e.g. Rio de Janeiro). GEs enable visualisation of locations which may not be feasible or easy to visit in real life (e.g. Great Barrier Reef or Tolbachik volcano). 

Further, GEs have simulations to envision concepts and systems such as the human heart, the respiratory system, or the process of pollination.

Using a Tablet and via the GEs app, the educator guides the students to look at the scenes of an expedition. The students use the app in the ‘follower’ mode and experience the GE/VR through the smart-phone embedded within the VR viewer. Based on our feedback, Google went onto to modify this mode of operation. Now students can look at the expeditions on their own via the VR viewers without having somebody to guide them through an expedition via the Tablet.

We investigated whether GEs could support inquiry-based learning in science and geography education; and whether GEs, as virtual field trips, support fieldwork education.

We found that students felt the sense of presence while experiencing virtual field trips - as if they were there. There is a sense of realism when you can look around. The effect of phenomenon such as coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef was quite evident and strong - where students enquired higher-order questions - which are more towards investigating phenomena rather than just asking what it was. It is not possible to view the process of pollination - but you can do so in a simulated environment in Google Expeditions. Human anatomy and systems that students may not experience - you can see them in a  360 degree view and they were able to ask questions and see the inter-relationships between the circulatory system and the respiratory system. 

The project web-page has links to blog-posts related to our research on GEs.

Ana-Despina Tudor and I, with support from colleagues in Google, Field Studies Council, Association for Science Association and Geographical Association, carried out this project and continue to reflect and publish our results.

Virtual inclusion via 360 degree videos

A scene from one of the 360 degree videos in the Virtual Inclusion app

A scene from one of the 360 degree videos in the Virtual Inclusion app

The project ‘Virtual Inclusion: Tackling Hate and Extremism in the UK Using Virtual Reality Technology’ received funding from the partnership between Google and the London-based think-tank Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

We have designed and developed 360 degree videos - 360 degree videos have a great power of story-telling. We have three scenarios depicting three non-British children and from different backgrounds. The scenarios show the somewhat bullying nature of other students towards them - either because of the colour of their skin, or they can’t speak very good English. The scenarios ask the viewers about the path they would choose at the end - some resolutions - and the viewers are expected to reflect on the scenarios and propose a way forward. These scenarios highlight elements of hate but sensitise the viewers about the significance of empathy and understanding towards others. These scenarios are lessons in citizenship and promote social inclusion and tolerance together with a positive message of anti-hate and anti-extremism. 

The 360 degree videos are an example of experiential learning - learning by experience but also reflective learning - where you are reflecting on what you have seen - why there is hatred? why the bullying and learn how you would not treat others the way that you have seen it.

Although these 360 degree videos have been developed for UK schools of 9-11 years of age, they are in the process being posted on Open Learn, our university’s site that hosts free educational resources for all. We are hopeful that these scenarios will be used in other countries, at other levels of education for students higher/lower than this age group.

Youtube 360 playlist with spatial sound of this project is here. The app is currently in the process of being approved before it can be made available for iOS and Android users. A WebGL browser version of the app will also be made available.

Our colleague Peter Bloom in the Department of People and Organisations at The Open University leads on this project. Other team members are Evangelia Baralou and me.

Reflections on the role of virtual reality in education

Being involved in projects such as that of Google Expeditions and Virtual Inclusion that involve emerging technologies, we realise their educational potential. This enables us to come up with applications of these technologies for our students. So, it leads to evidence-based teaching for us.

Which ever technology we employ in our curriculum, it is critical that it has a definite role (over and beyond the current ways of learning and teaching) in the curriculum. So, for social care workers who study with us at the university, we are developing a simulation in an avatar-based 3D environment where they experience several risks that they may encounter when they visit people’s homes. Through this simulation, they will learn how to address those risks - so, it is a training environment for them.

To simulate risky scenarios is expensive in real life and are difficult to set up - and they can only be used once or twice while they are set up. However, in a 3D simulation, students can practise as many times as you would like. This repetition is particularly useful in procedural learning - so, if a medical student has to learn using an instrument - they can practice repeatedly in this virtual environment. So, when they go to the lab, they will use the instrument for whatever experiment they need to conduct rather than learning how to use the instrument - saving on the otherwise expensive lab time.

VR will increasingly become a mainstream technology and will be particularly useful for these training applications:

  • Simulating risky environments - e.g. after-fire investigation, accident investigation

  • In forensic science education

  • in medical education - e.g. 3D models of human anatomy and physiology

  • in nursing, nurses can learn to interact with patients; in midwifery

  • for skills-development - e.g.presentation skills, interviewing skills

  • to understand processes - such as visiting places that may not be able to visit in real life - e.g. bottom of the ocean floor to study the effects of climate change on oceanic life; to study environmental change in Borneo rain forests - affected by palm plantations, clearing of forests for creating infrastructure for tourists

  • fund-raising - for creating empathy via 360 degrees videos such as people affected by floods; 360 degree videos and VR can help in raising the plight of children in war-torn areas.

VR will soon become a norm in learning and teaching applications and in marketing.