Physically distant but socially connected

Video chats will become the new normal for staying in touch.

These are certainly strange times for us humans. As inherently social creatures, social distancing presents many proximal challenges and significant challenges to our wellbeing. Instead of social contact, it’s Microsoft Teams. Instead of coffee with colleagues, coffee on my lonesome (possibly with my cat).

With new Australian restrictions on social gatherings – in Victoria, a gathering of more than two people (other than a household) could result in an on the spot $1600 fine – social contact seems even more impossible. So now, when social communication via technology and social media will be more pronounced than ever, how do we maintain our social wellbeing? How do we stay physically distant, but socially connected?

First, we need to talk about empathy. Broadly, empathy is your ability to experience and internalise the experience of another person. Without face-to-face communication, empathy is compromised. When we talk face-to-face, our mirror neurons fire, reflecting the experience of the individual we are speaking to. These mirror neurons are the biological basis of compassion and empathy, rendering our empathic experience dependent on social contact.

One way to try and maintain as much empathic experience as possible during physical distance is to video chat as much as possible. Just try it. Instead of phoning colleagues, use the video feature. Sure, it will seem strange at first when you may have just picked up the phone before – but consider this; how many faces would you have seen during a normal workday? Compare this to the number of faces you see now.

Let’s make video chats the new normal and keep those mirror neurons firing. If spontaneous video chats are not your thing, make an effort to organise ‘group time’. Coming together as a group via video for morning tea or even a Friday afternoon hangout keeps that empathic experience alive.

Outside of work, try to FaceTime instead of audio-only phone calls with friends. Also, why not consider a Houseparty – but not the kind that is currently against the law. The Houseparty app enables video chats with up to eight people at a time – four times the amount of people that you can currently legally gather with. You get notified when a friend comes online, you can leave ‘facemails’ (your recorded face as a voice message), and even play games with each other. The key message here is that ‘face time’ will enhance our feelings of social connection and social wellbeing.

Now let’s talk about social media and mood. This one is important because chances are we will be using social media now more than ever as the primary mechanism to connect with others. Research has shown important connections between mood and antisocial behaviour online. If you are primed to be in a frustrated, negative mood, then you are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour online.

Specifically, participants primed to feel frustration and anger (as a result of being in an ‘impossible puzzle’ condition) were more likely to engage in trolling and bullying behaviours online. This was compared to groups that was positively primed or received no prime. So, if your mood is low and you are feeling frustrated, you are more likely to engage in toxic social behaviours online.

The take home message? Watch your mood and your online behaviour. Be aware that being in a bad mood could mean you are more likely to ‘behave badly’ online. Feeling frustrated at recent events that are outside of your control? Try to stay away from social media – take a walk, play with your dog, have a cup of tea. Return to social media when you are in a positive mindset and your social experience will be far more satisfying. Let’s all work together to create social wellbeing contagion – a positive social experience that will transmit across all social media users.

A word on social wellbeing contagion. Social media can seem pretty anxiety provoking right now. Fear and worry due to COVID19 has generated some particularly dark spaces and big feelings online. If you are looking for a social media pick me up, try the Kindness Pandemic – a social group that is growing bigger by the day sharing positive, kind human experiences during this period of social distance and isolation.

Finally, in some ways, this experience could even facilitate new social connections and experiences. Your attempts to engage in more social contact could even bolster your social connections. For example, recently – prompted by my own efforts to video chat more – I chatted (video) with a friend whom I had not spoken to in… I can’t remember how long. Further, after posting online that gardening is a great way to keep active and busy during this time, a friend I had not spoken to in 15 years contacted me asking for gardening advice. Neither of these connections would have happened had I not been actively trying to connect with others as a result of physical distance. Although we may be physically distant, this does not mean we cannot be socially connected.

It is expected that in the months to come, those dark spaces and big feelings may be a recurrent theme. In addition to your physical wellbeing, your mental and social wellbeing is equally important. Check in with yourself on a regular basis and reach out to available supports if you need. Remember, we are all in this together, and we will need to take care of each other, but also take care of ourselves.

Dr Evita March is a Senior Psychology Lecturer in the School of Health and Life Sciences.

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