UW News

April 10, 2020

Local response to UW social isolation study leads to national effort

UW News

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Social distancing guidelines during COVID-19 have prompted UW psychology researchers to launch a national study of how people are coping.Nick Bolton/Unsplash


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Before word got around of graduate student Adam Kuczynski’s social distancing study last month, he and his advisor, Jonathan Kanter, had hoped a couple hundred people would sign up.

The study, focused on how King County residents spend their time during COVID-19 physical isolation, drew 500 participants. And very quickly, a theme emerged.

“The response from the public and the media to our first survey was overwhelming,” said Kanter, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “The main question we heard over and over again was, what should someone do to best cope with the crisis?”


Participants in the UW COVID Coping Study must be at least 18 years old, live in the United States and have a smartphone that can receive text messages. So with most states now under stay-at-home orders, Kanter and his team this week launched a new study in partnership with Bastyr University, aimed at a national audience, to test whether a motivational, mental health tip each day changes participants’ behavior during social distancing, and improves their mental and relational health.

Like the original social distancing study, which will continue to check in on participants for several months, the new research relies on people’s use of smartphones to take a survey each night about their mood and activity throughout the day. The new research will follow the same process each day for a month, but for two of the weeks, half of participants will be sent daily text messages with suggestions about how to cope – breathing exercises, for instance, tips for reaching out to friends and family, or audio clips or links with more detailed information, like how to have helpful conversations with others.

“The first month of our research suggests that, while many of us are coping well and adapting to our new normal, others are suffering in different ways. Social interaction has decreased substantially, loneliness is high, and substance use has increased for a substantial portion of our sample. We are concerned and want to help,” Kuczynski said.

Read a related piece in The Conversation and more media coverage of Jonathan Kanter’s social connection work here.

All the advice is evidence-based, and the tips are meant to be easy to do, said Kanter, who runs the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the UW. At the end of the study, the other half of participants will receive the full package of tips.

“Many of us right now are overwhelmed and are trying to sort through all the opinions, advice and suggestions that are flooding social and news media. We are hoping that our tips will cut through all that noise,” Kanter said.

“We know a great deal from psychological science about how to help people with stress, anxiety and depression, as well as how to help people connect and overcome loneliness, but we don’t really know how to put all that into practice, or how best to deliver that information to the public, in a situation like the current crisis.”

Kanter and his lab hope their work will inform public health authorities about how people are coping, offer help to participants in their study, and add to the science on how to effectively and quickly disseminate public health tools in times of need.

Because the lab developed the project quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kanter and his team are seeking funding to continue the work.

Dan Rosen, professor and chair of the Department of Counseling & Health Psychology at Bastyr University, is a co-investigator on the project.

For more information, contact Kanter at jonkan@uw.edu.