From missing out on milestone moments to being unable to see friends and family, the pandemic’s disruption of everyday life has left many of us feeling socially isolated.
It’s a topic that vlogger, broadcaster and author Hannah Witton knows well. Feelings of loneliness while working abroad as an au pair were what led to her discovering vlogs and videos, and participating in online communities. She’s since launched a popular podcast entitled Doing It, which explores sex and relationships in the hope of destigmatising these conversations and bringing people together.
While she’s aware that technology cannot ever replace our human need for real life meet-ups, Hannah has teamed up with Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow initiative to show how technology can provide tools to tackle social isolation. We caught up with Hannah as she shared what inspired her to talk about social isolation publicly, how video calls have helped maintain her friendships, and her greatest lockdown lesson.
The pandemic has been a very difficult time for so many. How do you think it's impacted young people mentally, emotionally and socially?
The main thing that I’ve seen is just how much it’s disrupted a lot of milestone events for young people and how devastating that can feel. There are so many rites of passage that feel almost crucial to being young, like end-of-school parties, proms or freshers' week. It might seem really trivial but it’s not like they can go back in time and re-experience it. The social, mental and emotional aspects are all tied in together. I obviously know why those things couldn’t happen but it is heartbreaking. As someone who did get to experience all of those things, my heart goes out to all those young people who feel a real sense of loss.
What drew you to speak about the topic of social isolation and become an ambassador for Solve for Tomorrow?
I think Solve for Tomorrow is such a great programme that’s really putting people’s ideas at the forefront and giving them the tools to be able to just run with the causes that they care about.
Also, I think social isolation is something we’ve all been affected by. It’s been mandated, which is such a weird, dystopian thing to even think about, but outside of that, social isolation is something that I’ve experienced throughout my life at different times. One of the key things I’ve learned – and wanted to communicate by getting involved with Solve for Tomorrow – is that everything is temporary. I’ve gone through some really bad bouts of health stuff that left me feeling really socially isolated but there’s something about just getting through each day and reminding yourself that this is not forever.
One of the things that came out of the Solve for Tomorrow Future Talk event was [realising] how much technology is driven by people. Tech is a tool and people are the connection and they work together. These are the things that will help solve these issues.
You've previously shared your experiences of personal isolation and how technology helped you. What are some ways that technology can help forge relationships and bring people together?
It’s important to remember that tech isn’t the solution but it is at our disposal and we can very much be in charge of how we use it. For me, being able to bridge that gap in terms of distance and not being confined to creating relationships with people who you have physical proximity to are some of the ways that it’s helped me in terms of social isolation. One of my best friends lives in Ireland and so I didn’t see her for almost two years because of the pandemic and technology was the only way that we communicated. Also, if you haven’t heard from a friend in a while, check in with them and send a text to say: 'How are you doing?' I’ve received messages like that and always appreciated it.
How important do you think technology is for marginalised communities and what are some ways in which you've seen it being put to good use in this area?
I think it’s hugely important. As a sex educator, I see it a lot in the LGBTQ+ community, where people don’t necessarily have family or friends that are LGBTQ+ so can find it a really isolating experience. Online is the place where a lot of queer people can find communities and people to talk to about their experiences. Without tech it might have taken them a lot longer to make those connections.
Tell us more about why the world of technology called you and specifically how driving social change became your mission.
Coming into the world of technology and social media actually happened because I was feeling completely socially isolated. It was 10 years ago, when I was living in a remote village in France as an au pair. I’d have hours to myself in the evening and that was when I got into vlogs and videos, and connected with strangers all around the world on the internet. Once I started posting my own stuff and gained a bit of an audience, I saw that it was mostly women [viewing my content]. Sex education was something I was really passionate about and was really comfortable talking about, so that’s how I got started. I wanted to use the platform that I had for good.
What is the most important lesson you learned during the pandemic?
Living in the present. I have always been such a future-orientated person and I didn’t realise how little time was spent just living in the moment. The pandemic forced you to take a step back and it was a big lesson for me. It can be daunting but I think there’s also a kind of relief and sense of freedom that I feel when things are out of my control.
Samsung's Solve for Tomorrow offers you a chance to explore the role tech can play in tackling some of society's most pressing issues, including social isolation. No qualifications are needed, and you can go at your own pace with the On Demand online learning courses. The free course on Designing for a Future Where No One Feels Socially Isolated is available online now.