Increasing Social Connection While “Social Distancing”

In a recent phone call, a friend and I chatted about our first week at home during the coronavirus lockdown. She, along with many of us, finds the transition challenging. Since moving to a work-from-home setup, her job—which typically involves daily in-person interactions—has shifted to mostly email or Zoom communication. Her positive and productive work relationships were suddenly feeling strained and unfamiliar.

Recent psychological findings help to elucidate how human interactions are changing in the age of coronavirus. As COVID-19 continues to spread, more and more people are required to stay home. This new reality has friends, families, and colleagues communicating exclusively online. The problem is that online interactions—particularly when they supplant in-person interactions—can make us feel disconnected and lonely because they lack the humanizing features necessary for deep social connection.

But there are ways to minimize the downsides of our newfound digital lives. Here, we review research-based strategies to optimize your social engagement online. The psychology comes from our recent paper which outlines four key ways in which online and offline interactions differ.

Just because we are “socially distancing” doesn’t mean we have to socially disconnect.

First, online interactions tend to be bereft of nonverbal cues—the embodied things that people readily do during in-person communication such as smiling, touching, or changing the tone of one’s voice to express emotion. These cues are important contributors to how we connect with others. Seeing someone’s smiling face can increase feelings of acceptance, feeling someone’s touch can enhance cooperation with them, and hearing someone’s voice humanizes them even during conflict. Not only do these cues enhance intimacy during conversation, they also help prevent miscommunication.

But many of the ways we interact online (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) are mostly text-based, stripping away visual, physical, and auditory nonverbal cues. For this reason, consider choosing technologies that regain these important means of connection. When your goal is to connect or strengthen understanding, use phone calls and video chats to implant nonverbal cues back into your conversations. Select equipment that gives you the clearest access to these nonverbal cues: for example, using headphones instead of speakers increases the ability to detect paralinguistic cues in a voice—such as pitch, volume, and intonation—making people feel socially closer to the communicator.

Second, online platforms allow people to passively and anonymously browse content. Passive browsing—on social media, in particular—is associated with feelings of loneliness and reduced well-being. Further, anonymity can lead people to be disinhibited—allowing them to feel less accountable and increase behaviors that they may be less likely to display in person (e.g., bullying).

The research indicates that using online platforms in a more active way—commenting and posting instead of just liking and browsing—enhances connectedness for at least two reasons. First, it gives others the opportunity to respond meaningfully to your posts, starting actual conversations. Second, it reduces “parasocial” relationships, one-sided interactions in which you extend energy and time following someone who has no awareness of your existence (leading to wasted emotional labor for the follower). Thus, being more active in your online engagement may help to safeguard against this issue and increase feelings of connection.

Third, online platforms allow for wider (and faster) dissemination of information than ever before—meaning that there is an unending stream of information at your fingertips. At times, this can be positive as it allows you to learn and be aware of the day’s happenings. But while staying informed is certainly important, obsessing over the news during a particularly volatile time (a pandemic, for instance), can add to one’s angst.

Use technology in a way that helps you to remain physically distant while socially connected.

To reduce anxiety, set rules for yourself about how often and how long you will read the news. Moreover, it’s likely that not all of that information is trustworthy. False news stories have been shown to spread more quickly and widely than true stories. To enhance accuracy, notice the source of the news: stick to news outlets that cite their primary sources and actually read the source material. By setting consumption constraints and sticking to primary sources, you will be more efficient in consuming information online.

The fourth and final difference between online and offline interactions presents a silver lining to our current predicament. Online platforms provide more opportunities to create new social ties and strengthen existing ties. Connecting with someone online is increasingly common and often leads to offline friendships, relationships, and even marriage. Now is a time to join support groups, find other people who share common interests, or simply connect with people over the “new normal” we are all adjusting to.

The last couple of weeks have given our personal and professional lives a new challenge. For the foreseeable future, the majority of the world will be living behind closed doors—but just because we are “socially distancing” doesn’t mean we have to socially disconnect. Follow the lessons we outline here to use technology in a way that helps you to remain physically distant while socially connected.