As the new school year begins, I can't help but think about the students that won't be rushing through the front gates, excited to see their friends again, because their health simply won't let them. This Autumn, some children won't be assigned a new classroom seat. Instead, they will have to sit at home alone, cut off from their peer group.
When a child is socially isolated, the effects can span everything from mental health, to education and social development. In the short-term, depression is one of the main conditions suffered by these children who are already battling with illness and chronic conditions. If we look further down the line, however, that depression can morph into more varied and distressing mental health issues. Social skills and relationships are created and refined during the developmental stages of our childhood, and so it is no wonder that removing access to people, and social interaction, from a child's life can affect them later on.
Childhood loneliness is not something that has gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, Childline revealed that it had carried out more than 4,000 counselling sessions for children suffering from isolation last year alone. At the risk of this finding being just another statistic, I think that it is incredibly important that we highlight and understand the effects of chronic loneliness because isolation goes beyond feeling lonely.
Recently there have been many investigations into the physiological effects of social isolation. For example, research has shown that chronic isolation during childhood can affect brain growth and structure - a constant state of stress and lack of communication can affect the way the prefrontal cortex develops, and therefore lonely children can grow into adults with deficits in this area of the brain.
For many children, school is the centre of the social universe. It's the place where they cultivate friendships, and develop as a person. They cannot imagine a world without it. In a recent interview Nick Clegg, whose son was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in September of last year, he expressed confusion at the fact that Antonio's first reaction was not fear, it was concern about being away from school:
"...interestingly the thing he was most concerned about was sort of falling behind his classmates. His anxiety was more about keeping up with his classmates, keeping up at school."
This is something that we at No Isolation have heard over and over again from the children that we help; the original diagnosis of a chronic illness is bad, but the isolation is worse.
Social connection is something that we take for granted in this day and age. The majority of us can't function without a smartphone, and with social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat allowing us to document almost every second of our day-to-day activities, it's no wonder that we may feel lost when denied instant, direct access to all of our friends. At No Isolation, we are harnessing that technology to enable those suffering from social isolation to stay connected.
Technology such as our AV1, a telepresence robot, that allows children who are denied this crucial, face-to-face social interaction to connect with their peers, and offers them real-time interaction at school. AV1 can be a real lifesaver to children struggling with social isolation. Humans, children even more so, have a fundamental need for social support, care, and relationships, and this understanding is at the heart of every product we create.