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Quality time, online: Staying connected with social technologies during the coronavirus outbreak

As the novel respiratory virus COVID-19 spreads throughout numerous countries, governments and public healthcare systems are working tirelessly to contain the disease.

Photo: NordWood Themes/Unsplash

As the novel respiratory virus COVID-19 spreads throughout numerous countries, governments and public healthcare systems are working tirelessly to contain the disease. In many places like Stanford, this includes implementing social distancing policies – urging people to avoid large gatherings, to work from home when possible, and to limit contact with others to minimize the spread of the disease. (For more on this, check out “Flatten the Curve”).

Social distancing is a necessary precaution to protect the most vulnerable members of our community – like senior citizens and individuals with chronic health conditions. However, it does take a toll: Wanting to be with the people we care about is deeply and fundamentally human. In fact, social connection is closely tied to our mental and psychological health, affecting how good we feel and how satisfied we are with our lives. That’s why measures like social distancing can feel scary and difficult to us. It can be hard to be away from the people who bring us happiness, even in the best of times—let alone in the middle of a crisis. As efforts to combat the coronavirus escalate, how can we still connect with others when we have to be physically apart?

Social technologies like social media, video-chat, and texting are valuable, easily accessible tools that we can use to feel connected with our loved ones while keeping our communities safe. Though it might be surprising to hear that social media is not the “brain-hijacking” addiction that we should be afraid of, the science is on our side.

Research shows that using social technologies can provide a small boost to our well-being by really helping us feel more connected to the people around us (Hancock et al., 2019). Many studies find that smartphone usage can reduce feelings of social isolation – something particularly useful as more of us become physically isolated (Cho, 2015; DeAndrea, 2012). In our recent meta-analysis of every study on social media usage and well-being, we found that more social media use helps people feel closer and happier in their relationships by making it easier to communicate across distance. Gone are the days of having to pen-pal or leave a voicemail! Your friends and family are just a call, text, or Snapchat away.

From Facetime and Facebook to iMessage and Instagram, our phones are chock-full of powerful tools and apps that were built to bring people together when they can’t be in the same room. It’s time for us to take them up on their promise and put them to good use. Here are some ways you can use social technologies to feel more connected to the people you care about during these uncertain times.

First, try using your social media actively rather than passively. This means “actively” engaging with content you find interesting instead of simply browsing or scrolling through your feed. When you find something online that you think is really interesting, try sending it to your friends that might enjoy it. Maybe this means sharing a video about cocker spaniels with your brother, who is a huge dog person. Maybe this means texting your roommate about an article that reminds you of the class project your worked on together, or an inside joke from way-back-when. Maybe it means linking an informational, funny, engaging, or just plain weird video to a group chat to discuss with your friends.

Research shows that using social media actively can bolster your well-being by creating new lines of conversation or new points of connection. The next time you’re scrolling through your feed, see if anything reminds you of your family, your friends, or someone you care about. It might brighten their day to know you were thinking of them, and help you feel closer to them too.

Second, take advantage of the unique perks of communicating with people online. Whether you prefer to text, call, video-chat, or Snapchat, there are many ways to stay in touch with your loved ones. While there is a common misconception that social technologies are just “not as good” as face-to-face conversations, they actually offer some unique benefits that in-person interactions don’t have (Walther, 2007). Online communication means we don’t get as many emotional cues  – like facial expressions, or tone of voice – but we do get much more time to think about what we want to say so that we can put our best self forward. In this way, talking through social technologies can actually become “hyperpersonal” by exceeding what face-to-face conversations can do.

Take texting, for example. Texting is easy, quick, and widely available. As we anticipate less time together in-person, take some time to reflect about your texting habits and style, so that you can get the most out of your conversations. Are you a logistical texter, or a conversational texter? If you like to keep your messages short, sweet, and to the point – like coordinating plans and asking quick questions – you’re probably a logistical texter. If your messages look like blocks of text sent back to forth and are about anything on your mind, you’re definitely a conversational texter. While there’s no “right” way to text, conversational texting can be particularly helpful when restrictions like social distancing measures make it difficult to see others in person. Texting and messaging can be a great way to share your thoughts, feelings, and ideas with your friends, and to get support for anything you may be feeling.

In addition to helping you feel more connected, checking in with your friends and family can bring warmth and comfort into their lives. Just asking a simple, “How was your day?” or “How are you holding up?” can give them the opportunity to talk through their feelings, or just share the highlights and low points of their day. Think of it as the online equivalent of catching up over coffee, but with even less effort.

   Although many people many believe that the lack of emotional cues online will hurt the bond between people talking online, texting gives you more time to focus on crafting the content of the message – resulting in improved relationships between people. Instead of having to respond immediately, you can think more deliberately before typing out your response to a question or a comment. No more awkward silences or trying to force a conversation. If you need to, you can wait a few days before getting back to someone and just pick up the conversation from where you left off.

If you prefer having more face-time with your friends though, there is a perfect app for that. You can try out a video-chat hangout, also known as a “Facetime date.”  Many teens are already trying this out after school when they want to work on homework together in the company of others. All you have to do is set up your phone or computer to run your favorite video-chat platform (like Skype, Zoom, or Facetime) and get started. Whether you want to spend the time catching up, making small-talk, or simply co-working together, it can be a meaningful way of feeling close to your friends while social distancing measures are in place.

In addition, you can make use of services to watch movies and TV together with your friends and significant others. Sites like TwosevenGaze, and Watch2Gether were initially designed to be used by couples in long-distance relationships. If you want the comfort and connection of watching your favorite movies, enjoying your music videos, or yelling at the latest reality TV debacle with your friends, these are a great option.

No matter which one you use, there are a host of social technologies that are available for you to use to stay connected with the people you care about while times are uncertain. Although these ideas may not be the same as spending quality time with friends and family in-person, they can serve as valuable ways of maintaining important relationships.

Finally, you can try to reframe how you think about using social technologies. Many people have the mindset that using social media or social technologies is a waste of time or unhealthy. They worry that texting their friends or watching videos on YouTube is a negative influence on their life because it takes time away from “the things that matter.” However, there is a lot of evidence demonstrating that quality time with your friends and leisure are things that matter – a LOT. Using social technologies can be a source of incredibly meaningful social interactions and valuable information. We find that the more people have the mindset that social media is a useful tool they can use to fulfill their desires, learn new things, and connect with others – the better their health and well-being (Lee et al., 2019). It’s all in your mindset. There’s nothing wrong about wanting to feel close to the people you care about, or to want to relax and enjoy interesting content from the Internet. Wanting social connection is just a part of being human – and social technologies are a great way to enjoy that.

As social distancing measures continue to be in place, it’s important to think about being intentional about finding opportunities to connect with the people you care about. Spending quality time with friends and family is an important part of taking care of your mental health and well-being, and doing so digitally is an incredibly easy way to stay in touch while doing your part to protect your communities. Together, we can leverage the technological tools we’ve been given to stay strong and stay close during these uncertain times.

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