There is growing concern that the social and physical distancing measures implemented in response to the Covid-19 pandemic may negatively impact health in other areas, via both decreased physical activity and increased social isolation. Here, we investigated whether increased engagement with digital social tools may help mitigate effects of enforced isolation on physical activity and mood, in a naturalistic study of at-risk individuals. Passively sensed smartphone app use and actigraphy data were collected from a group of psychiatric outpatients before and during imposition of strict Covid-19 lockdown measures. Data were analysed using Gaussian graphical models: a form of network analysis which gives insight into the predictive relationships between measures across timepoints. Within-individuals, we found evidence of a positive predictive path between digital social engagement, general smartphone use, and physical activity-selectively under lockdown conditions (N = 127 individual users, M = 6201 daily observations). Further, we observed a positive relationship between social media use and total daily steps across individuals during (but not prior to) lockdown. Although there are important limitations on the validity of drawing causal conclusions from observational data, a plausible explanation for our findings is that, during lockdown, individuals use their smartphones to access social support, which may help guard against negative effects of in-person social deprivation and other pandemic-related stress. Importantly, passive monitoring of smartphone app usage is low burden and non-intrusive. Given appropriate consent, this could help identify people who are failing to engage in usual patterns of digital social interaction, providing a route to early intervention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3920-3930
Number of pages11
JournalMolecular Psychiatry
Issue number8
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2021


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