Modern day ‘hermits’ may not be doing okay

Image: Justin Mathews

By Dr. Michael Walker and Dr. Robbie Lloyd

You can probably think of a friend or relative who has become a bit of a hermit during COVID: quite happy isolated in their house and who isn’t rushing to return to their former social life. It isn’t just adults, either; many young people have taken to this lifestyle.

Putting the social stigma aside, the reality is that being home alone today provides plenty of opportunities for addictive behaviours that can become harmful to our relationships and to our own flourishing such as online gambling, pornography and sexting. Moreover, seeking this isolation can itself be a sign that a person is escaping into digital reality because of psychological difficulties.

Let’s look at just one of these digital addictions: online gambling. Australia already had a gambling problem before COVID, losing over $1000 a year for every man, woman and child. Yet spending on gambling increased more than four-fold (329%) during the period of COVID lockdowns. It’s easy enough to see how: unlike alcohol or tobacco which at least needs to be delivered, gambling is available at the tap of a few buttons. Also, regulation hasn’t caught up with changing habits. Gambling, with real money, has become a feature of many games played by children as young as 11. By age 15, half of all young Australians have had a go at gambling. The airwaves and online streaming platforms are full of ads for online betting companies.

Australians are aware of the problem. An overwhelming 71% want gambling ads banned from TV: about the same number that agree with the ban on tobacco TV advertising. Whether that happens will remain to be seen.

The government of course can’t solve the issue of online gambling. Self-responsibility and the community have to play their role. Sydney-based psychologist Jocelyn Brewer argues that people need to stop expecting that they can go cold turkey on digital and instead think of it the way we now think of nutrition: Is what I am consuming healthy for me and my loved ones or is it toxic?

The Justice and Peace Office is hosting a workshop in Leichhardt on Thursday 1 December to discuss some of these issues at the intersection of addictive behaviour, stigma and criminalisation.

It will also be a chance to explore and discuss the grey area between mental health and pastoral practice, with the aim of letting people in pastoral ministries find out where they can go for support.