Proposal- Meaningful engagement with the chronically lonely towards a participatory design solution: A study of first year foreign students in Durban.

Project background

Impact of loneliness

Loneliness is a rising issue impacting Durban students. Though this wicked problem can be impacted positively through critical design solutions. Loneliness has been recognized as a worldwide epidemic which is gravelly impacting major countries around the world. This current moment in time is considered the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. This problem of loneliness holds national importance due to the mental and physical health impediments which are an economic burden on countries. These health issues according to Bevinn, (2011), reduce the longevity of one’s life by causing cardiovascular disease, increased likely hood of obesity which entails high blood pressure, high total cholesterol, depleted immune system, and limited cancer recovery. While the mental implications of loneliness according to Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, Thisted, (2006). (2010), entails cognitive decline, which may lead to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and suicide. The side effects of loneliness come into place due to an evolutionary effect instilled within humankind as a defenses mechanism and way to promote the continuation of the gene pool.

The impact to South African students

These consequences of loneliness may be detrimental to South Africa’s young adults as suicide is the second leading cause of death within this age group. Furr et al (2001) conducted a study on suicide attempt among students in higher education. The study shows 47% of students named loneliness as the main causal factor contributing to their attempted suicide. Although chronic loneliness within South African youth cannot be accurately measured, we are able to obtain an indication of its impact due to the consequence of depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation behaviour, which is known to accompany it. Tertiary students aged 16-24 years old are in a transitioning period of their lives with numerous changes that many are unable to cope with. This includes stresses both surrounding academic performance and interactions within the institution as well as outside sources such as media influences, family issues, financial problems, and relationship issues as there is a larger likely hood of individuals at this age engaging superficial relationships.

While academic performance is also jeopardized according to (Wohn and LaRose, 2014; Mattanah et. al., 2010), there is a relation between loneliness among students and study related problems. As lonely college students are impacted the most in the adjustment period, resulting in lower academic results and a decrease in physical and psychological well-being. Thus, it is quite evident why the survey conducted by BBC in 2019 produced the results of 19-24-year-old being the loneliest by feeling the effects of loneliness most deeply.

Foreign Students

Students studying in another country or province than the one they live in are highly susceptible to feelings of chronic loneliness or social isolation due to cultural change and homesickness. According to Sawir et. Al.,(2008), these students often have problems adjusting to the new cultural dynamic and are often unable to solidify the same quality relationships in which they find in people from the same cultural background. Often encountering exclusion or disappointment in relationships with local students.

However, when these students are in need of help there is limited likely hood in which they will seek out professional help. As according to Verouden et. al., (2010a). As the culture surrounding student’s health-related issues promotes the tendency of solving problems on their own

Technology and mental health

Technology is a vibrant part of the modern age and a very contradictory subject on the topic of mental illness and social engagement as technology has allowed people to be constantly connected and saturated by content. This has allowed people to engage socially on social media and created a global village of people being able to connect around the world. Though this has allowed people to reside within two worlds. One which is considered real and the other a representation of a virtual world. Though these worlds intermingle in the effect it has on individuals. This immersion into the virtual world is most prevalent in young adults due to there life developing around the technological revolution and the cultural phenomena it has created.

This revolution promotes the benefits of independents and connectivity by creating a social platform which enhances the perception of people’s lives and creates the illusion of association, well creating ideologies of success which create negative mindsets. Young adults are far more suspectable to the negative influences as they at a transitional point in there lives in which they are finding who they are in the world.

Social media is mainly a tool of redeeming one’s self from a sense of social loneliness, leaving individual will emotionally loneliness with the limit meaningful engagement the individual redeems. Thought the quick employment of socialization as promoted more people to substitute real relationships with online relationships, resulting in superficial engagement. While manipulating their perception of the self and social hierarchy, leaving them to feel inadequate for social engagement, self-conscious and untrusting

However, the advancement of technology all depends on what purpose people decide to create it for as it has previously shown remarkable results in helping the mentally ill, allowing people conquer phobias and help dementia patients obtain companionship.


Loneliness holds a multitude of physical and mental impairments. For first-year foreign students in Durban this mental issue needs intervention as it can have detrimental effects both now and later on in life. As engaging in a meaningful social situation is tremendously difficult for them, due to cultural diversity and the social-cultural evolution. Well, technology may be a tool to gain meaningful engagement it is also creating a maladaptive social cognition by manipulating the perspective we have of our self and the world around us.

Research Questions

  • What are the major contributors to loneliness in a society constantly connected?
  • Why are students so heavily affected by the feeling of loneliness and why is that rate getting worse?
  • Is South African apart of the loneliness epidemic plaguing major cities around the world?
  • Is the loneliness epidemic a major contributor to young adult suicide rates?
  • How can meaningful engagement be created?
  • Does emotional loneliness in students have any contributions so loneliness later in life, due to social adversity?
  • Can technology fill the gap of an emotional companion which creates meaningful engagement?
  • Is loneliness a mere mental barrier that can be removed by manipulating maladaptive social cognition behaviour?
  • What matters to lonely foreign students ?

Project goals

Goal 1: Reduce loneliness in first year Students studying away from the country or province they live in.

As a young adult individuals are having to embark multiple changes yet transitioning to a whole new place is a far greater change that many young adults are faced today. While being faces with the consequence of adapting to a new social dynamic.

  • Educate social skills
  • Change mindsets
  • Instigate social engagement
  • Create meaningful engagement
  • Stay connected with the familiar
Goal 2: Create meaningful engagement by the disruption of mindsets.

As young adult individuals are having to embark multiple changes yet transitioning to a whole new place is a far greater chance that many young adults are faced today. While being faced with the consequence of adapting to a new social dynamic.

  • Educate social skills
  • Change mindsets
  • Instigate social engagement
  • Create meaningful engagement
  • Stay connected with the familiar

One’s mindset is the pinnacle point of instigating any form of meaning full social engagement. As a negative mindset can lead to social isolation and depression. Thus, if one has a negative mindset surround a place or culture, they may remain unengaged and closed to positive aspects or engage with people that could forty more social engagement.

Connect cultures and people
Educate a new perspective
Disrupt negative associations with a positive one.
Stop the prohibition of socializing
Invoking new experiences   

Goal 3: Using design to create a difference

Design is a powerful tool for solving human created issues. Though in order to help solve problems there needs to be deep empathy with the user by collaborated with them throughout the design process. This means of co-design allows the designer to understand how the problem completely affects the user. Thus, making a change to changes to aspects creating the problem can have major effects of the user in both negative and positive areas of life.  

  • Audience participation and interaction.
  • Co-design – a creative collaboration with user
  • Engage observation, reflection, and expression throughout the design process
  • design for the individual
  • take the problem apart and use multiple approaches


The research shall be implemented by utilizing an applied research approach to gain information that can invoke a solution while gaining knowledge from past theories in basic research as well as obtaining research thought-out the design process within pragmatic research. This research shall be guided through an interpretivist lens of social science and human-centric understanding.

As the design discipline was established to create design solutions to artificial problems constructed by human beings according to Rodgers, and Bremner, (2016). This process to design is called the’s (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) User-Centred Prototype-Driven Design Process according to the University of British Columbia,(2019), in which one Empathizes, Defines, Ideates, Prototypes, and Tests.

In order to gain an empathic outlook, primary research shall be conducted using quantitative research while submerging oneself in the research subject by employing cultural probes and conducting institutional and virtual ethnographic research.Throughout this process of conducting a design solution, reflection must be recognized to create an outcome that solves the issued problem, while taking in consideration of the user and knowledge obtained throughout the process.

Project recommendations

Like most wicked problems and issues concerning mental health, a multi-level approach is needed. In a study conducted by Masi, Chen, Hawkley, and Cacioppo,(2010)., Four loneliness reduction interventions were identified: enhancing social skills, increasing opportunities for social interaction, providing social support and addressing maladaptive social cognition. Though addressing maladaptive social cognition had the greatest impacted as one needs to re-articulate individuals’ perspectives to build and maintain satisfactory relationships.

This can be done by creating an individual cognitive behavioral therapy plan integrated with participatory design. In which one understands the situational factors, personality characteristics, cultural factors and health-related factors that may contribute to feelings of loneliness in the individual.

In relation to foreign students, creates a change in mindset and perception of the place they are now residing in, by creating a connecting with those back home. Thus, allowing the individual to be more accepting of the cultural difference and finding people or places with they can relate with. Recreating connections through past experiences and cultures.

Population parameters

The study population consisted of first-year full-time students attending tertiary education. To be included in the study, students had to attend a tertiary education facility full-time in Durban and be within the ages-old 17-24 years old. These students’ study at a tertiary institute away from home. This study must also take in consideration of those interact with the student’s such as University counselor or therapists as they may have an understanding of the issues impacting their behaviour of loneliness


The home commuter

Sally is a 17-year-old first-year strategy student at Vega. Sally has lived all her life in Bloemfontein but is now currently staying with distant relatives in Durban while many of her friends have gone to universities in other provinces. Sally has a scholarship at Vega but her parents would have preferred her to seek a career in law instead.

The International student

Deon is a 19-year-old Accounting student at UKZN. He is currently living in student accommodation in Durban. Deon previously lived in Swaziland and his family still residing there, however, Deon had to move for his studies. As Deon is no longer living at home, he has to pay for his own living expenses and works as a waiter in order to do so.

University counsellor / therapist

Tembi is a 42-year-old female counselor at Durban University of technology. She has been working there for 10 years and obtaining her degree in clinical psychology at Stellenbosch University. She is currently working on her masters in educational psychology, though she still meets with students during the week to discuss their mental well being.


Estimated overview of costs

Transportation to research participants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . R500.

Printing costs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  .  . R200.     

Equipment costs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . R200.

Data costs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. R120.

Replenishments. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . R300

Total costs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . R 1120

Case Studies

Combating the ‘loneliness epidemic’ with coffee and chat

“Traditional reserve is said to make it almost impossible for the British to talk to strangers in public places. However, a scheme, started three years ago by a young British mother struggling to cope with her feelings of loneliness.

Alexandra Hoskyn was 33 when she set up the Chatty Café Scheme in 2016. Her son, Henry, was four months old. She felt lonely, cut off from adult company. But as she walked around the town centre one day, an idea came to her. “I was pushing a pram around Oldham on my own,” she says. Stopping off at local cafés, she was struck that so many people were sitting on their own. “I noticed older people, carers with the person they cared for and people with babies and I thought it would be good if they could meet up,” she says. The organisation she set up encourages cafés to set aside a “Chatter and Natter” table where customers can sit if they are happy to talk to others. In three years, it has expanded to more than 1,000 cafés across the UK, and following a major award win last month is set to expand further. Chatty Café tables are identifiable by their A4 plastic table signs — like menu stands. They encourage customers to join strangers, knowing they will not be rebuffed. Those who want to remain alone can sit at other tables.

Costa Coffee carried out its own poll of 2,500 UK adults, and found 75 per cent said they would like to have more conversations. However, 63 per cent said they would be hesitant to chat to someone they did not know because of the fear of rejection. Four per cent said they don’t have any face-to-face conversations at all. “It is clear from our research that although we appear to be talking less as a nation, there’s a real desire for people to actually have more face-to-face conversations around the country,” says Victoria Moorhouse, head of sustainability at Costa Coffee.

Cafés taking part in the Chatty Café scheme pay £10 a year; in return, they receive marketing material to put on a table designated as the “table for chats”. Some cafés also provide information on their websites. As well as mental health benefits, talking is also good for trade on the high street. Café owners have told Ms Hoskyn that the scheme has attracted new customers. Some have already expanded the option from one or two days a week to the whole week. The scheme makes economic as well as social sense — it means there are fewer tables with one customer.” (Cook, 2019).

Hello Happiness

Hello Happiness,” a new video from Coca-Cola, opens with footage of migrant laborers in Dubai, standing before dawn in a patch of dirt as they wait for a van to pull up and shuttle them to work. Later, we cycle through shots of grim-faced men in work clothes—slouched on the bus as the sun rises, hunched on sagging bunk beds, crowded on the floor of a small room during mealtime with their elbows nearly touching. They tell us that they love and miss their families, and that they wish they could hear their children’s voices more often. We learn that these workers make about six dollars per day, and that it costs nearly a dollar per minute to call home—so phone calls are rare. Then the screen goes red, the music brightens, and we are posed a question: “So what if every Coke came with a few extra minutes of happiness?”

In March, Coke installed five special phone booths in Dubai labor camps that accepted Coca-Cola bottle caps instead of coins. In exchange for the cap from a bottle of Coke—which costs about fifty-four cents—migrant workers could make a three-minute international call. The ad shows laborers in hard hats and reflective vests lining up to use the machine—and grinning, for the first time in the video, as they wait. “I’ve saved one more cap, so I can talk to my wife again tomorrow,” one man tells the camera. More than forty thousand people made calls using the machines. Then, in April, after the booths had been up for about a month, the company dismantled them.

The lives of Dubai’s migrant laborers are filled with hardship. Foreigners—including thousands of migrant workers from South Asia—make up more than eighty-eight per cent of residents of the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a commercial and cultural center, according to a report this year from Human Rights Watch. The report found that recruiters in countries like India and Pakistan often charge fees of several thousand dollars to migrant laborers to facilitate their trips to the U.A.E. and their employment once they arrive. Once workers reach their destination, employers sometimes confiscate their passports, the report said, and laborers are barred from organizing or bargaining collectively.” (Vara, 2015)


WaveLength gives media technology to people who are lonely and living in poverty. 

The people we help are lonely for lots of different reasons. Some of them find it hard to leave home because of illness or restricted mobility. Some are elderly and living alone. Many are coming out of homelessness or domestic abuse, and know very few people or find it hard to make new friends.

Our beneficiaries tell us their TVs and radios are ‘lifelines’, because they connect them to the outside world. They also comfort them through long days and lonely nights. And research from the University of York confirms this.

New campaign to tackle loneliness matches elderly people with local dogs

“Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.”

In light of this, pet food company, Pedigree, have joined forces with the Campaign to End Loneliness to launch a new initiative with the aim of matching elderly people with dogs in their local area to help fight loneliness and isolation.

Run by Mars Petcare, Pedigree started the campaign, which has the sweet name Dog Dates, in April in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. It is now going nationwide.

“Research at the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition shows that pets can help older people remain active in later years,” Pedigree states. “But as well as the physical benefits, a pet can help older people remain socially active too.

The canine date will encourage the elderly person to get outside and explore nature. Plus, having a dog makes it easier to talk to other people as you cross paths in the park or on a walk.

It’s not just the humans that benefit from the campaign though, as the dogs will get to be outside, go for walkies, and bond with new two-legged friends.

The royal college of General Practitioners

Worryingly, loneliness has become a public health epidemic. GPs across the UK see millions of lonely and socially isolated patients each year. Loneliness and social isolation cannot be treated with medicines, or referred for hospital treatment; yet they must be addressed if GPs are to deliver the best care for patients.

Tackling loneliness is about more than medicine and that is why we community action plans to tackle it in EnglandScotlandWales and Northern Ireland. We need action to be taken to ensure GPs and their teams are able to work with the wider community to provide the most appropriate care to lonely patients


Bevinn, S. (2011). Psychology of Loneliness. [ebook] New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc. Available at: [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019]

Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., Thisted, R.A. (2010). Perceived isolation makes me sad: 5-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and aging, 25, 453-463.

Cacioppo, J.T., Hughes, M.E., Waite, L.J., Hawkley, L.C., Thisted, R.A. (2006). Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychology and Aging, 21, 140-151

Cook, L. (2019). Combating the ‘loneliness epidemic’ with coffee and chat. [Blog] Financial Times. Available at: [Accessed 6 Apr. 2019].

Hammond, C. (2019). The surprising truth about loneliness. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Apr. 2019].

Masi, C., Chen, H., Hawkley, L. and Cacioppo, J. (2010). A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, [online] 15(3), pp.219-266. Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2019].

Mattanah, J.F., Ayers, J., Brand, B., Brooks, L., Quimby, J., & McNary, S. (2010). A social support intervention to ease the college transition: Exploring main effects and moderators. Journal of College Student Development, 51, 93-108. (2019). Loneliness. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2019].

Rodgers, P.A. and Bremner, C. (2016). The concept of the design discipline Dialectic. I(I): [s.p.]. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 17 Mar. 2019].

Spary, S. (2014). Starbucks celebrates ‘real moments of human connection’ in global campaign. [Blog] campaign. Available at: [Accessed 7 Apr. 2019].

University of British Columbia (2019). Design Processes | UBC [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2019].

Vara, V. (2015). Coca-Cola’s Happiness Machines. [Blog] The new yorker. Available at: [Accessed 7 Apr. 2019].

Wohn, D.Y., & LaRose, R. (2014). Effects of loneliness and differential usage of Facebook on college adjustment of first-year students. Computers & Education, 76, 158-167.

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