Staying Connected Via Social Media in the Age of COVID-19
Social media as a social distancing antidote in the age of COVID-19.
Posted March 20, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned people’s lives upside down, with profound economic, social, family, work, and school shifts and disruptions. One such disruption is social distancing, which imposes restrictions on social gatherings and in-person contact in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
But how do you stay socially connected despite social distancing? How do you minimize social isolation and loneliness when you have to hunker down and physically distance yourself from others?
There is a solution, and it lies at our fingertips. It’s offered through social media, which can give people a sense of normalcy during these challenging times by helping them to stay connected with one another even when being physically isolated. It can provide an antidote to social distancing by allowing people to stay in touch with their friends and communities, engage in online conversations, participate in collective coping and processing of stressful life disruptions, and stay up-to-date on news and current events. In this sense, social media plays an important social compensatory function by substituting physical touch with a virtual touch and extending social contacts beyond the physical boundaries of our confinements.
The role of social media during socially challenging times like today also adds a new angle to the long-standing debate about reinforcing vs. displacing effects of online communication on in-person connections. Whereas it has been established that social media use can reinforce and does not reduce in-person contact [i], the COVID-19 outbreak underscores a different—social compensatory—role of social media. When in-person connections are displaced, not by social media, but by outside forces and disruptions such as the virus outbreak, online communication can provide a much-needed remedy for staying in touch and connected.
While social media can undoubtedly help us maintain a sense of normalcy and social touch, this is not to say that its effects are unequivocally positive, and we can be on social media 24/7. A potential downside is that social media use can also contribute to stress, anxiety, and panic because of the incessant discharge of information algorithmically curated to hold people’s attention as long as possible. This dual nature of social media, which can facilitate both positive and negative effects on well-being, is known as the "social media see-saw" effect [ii]. Being mindful of this dualism, we should remember to take breaks from our digital devices and screens and engage in other meaningful activities in our lives, such as doing fun activities with our partners and families (as challenging as it can be when families are cooped up together for weeks) and spending time outdoors, to maintain a balance in our lives.
The COVID-19 outbreak has created seismic shifts in people’s lives, from public health concerns and long-term economic repercussions to pervasive disruptions in daily life and routines. Social distancing is one of its adverse side effects that may, however, be mitigated through online communication and virtual connections. In times like these, social media can provide a much needed social compensation, relief, and some sense of normalcy to our lives.
[i] Dienlin, T., Masur, P. K., Trepte, S. (2017) Reinforcement or displacement? The reciprocity of FTF, IM, and SNS communication and their effects on loneliness and life satisfaction, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 22(2), 71–87, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12183.
[ii] Weinstein, E. (2018). The social media see-saw: Positive and negative influences on adolescents’ affective well-being. New Media & Society, 20(10), 3597–3623. https://doi.org/10.1177/146144481875563