There’s never been a better time to have to stay at home.

Never mind the bingeable content trove at our fingertips or the ability to have groceries and a new book delivered to our doorsteps in five clicks or less. In some ways, we’ve been social distancing for years as more aspects of our social lives go digital. Looking for a date? There’s an app for that. Curious about the latest neighborhood gossip? Check the Facebook group. Missing your bestie you haven’t seen in a while? Hop on a quick FaceTime call before dinner. Or better yet, just text them.

Beyond the serious public health concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected our social lives as our cafes and parks close, and as health experts advise limiting in-person interactions and keeping a 6-foot invisible buffer between ourselves and others. But with all the technology at our disposal, we’re uniquely equipped (if not conditioned) to adapt our lives to stay-at-home orders.

“If this had happened in 2002 or something, I think it would have been really different,” says Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington whose research focuses on human-computer interaction and the negative effects of everyday technology. “What a different world it is in terms of our ability to connect.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults use social media, up from just 5% in 2005. Even more own smartphones. While these numbers are also up for seniors, the least plugged-in generation, Hiniker has witnessed firsthand the shift among her students over the past decade.

“They’ve already been practicing this for a long time in really every aspect of their social life,” Hiniker says. “I don’t think that means this is easy. Obviously, social isolation is really hard for everyone, but I think … we’re in the right place with the right tools to get through this in a better way.”

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More opportunities to connect virtually

Janaki Nagarajan and her friends are already talking about organizing a backyard badminton tournament once the coronavirus blows over, “hopefully this summer.” While working from home in northeast Seattle, the 26-year-old teacher has been leading kindergartners through online classes using Zoom — videoconferencing software now used in more than 90,000 schools worldwide. A spokesperson for the company declined to share numbers on registered users. But according to a company blog post, Zoom saw a peak of 200 million daily meeting participants last month. The prepandemic record? 10 million.

Kindergarten teacher Janaki Nagarajan reads a book to her students using Zoom, which is now used by more than 90,000 schools around the world, according to the company. (Janaki Nagarajan)
Kindergarten teacher Janaki Nagarajan reads a book to her students using Zoom, which is now used by more than 90,000 schools around the world, according to the company. (Janaki Nagarajan)

Nagarajan misses those face-to-face interactions at school, but adjusting her social life hasn’t been too painful. Work already kept her busy, and with her friends scattered across town, they often resorted to talking on the phone anyway. Life’s slower pace hasn’t been all bad.

“Honestly, it hasn’t felt like a huge shock for me personally,” says Nagarajan, who’s been texting with friends more frequently the past few weeks. “In fact, just because we’re less busy all the time, there’s more opportunities to connect with friends virtually.”

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but our current situation reminds Hiniker of a recent study that examined Facebook patterns around deceased users. In a nutshell, it found that the same amount of activity removed from the network when one user dies was replaced by a series of new interactions between people once linked only through that person, sometimes resulting in connections that persist for years.

“So the thought is that we all really crave and need these social connections,” Hiniker says, “and when that connection is lost, the network will sort of heal itself. People will go and seek out those new connections and be really creative in finding ways to connect. I think that’s similar to what we’re seeing right now. We’ve all lost a lot of social connection, but we’re not going to be able to just sit with that and stay disconnected. We’re going to find ways to replace all of that activity and probably get back to that same level of social behavior.”

As the bulk of our social lives go digital for the foreseeable future, Hiniker suspects geography won’t be as much of a factor in terms of who we choose to virtually hang out with. She might be right.

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Virtual trivia night, happy hour

Andrea Learned misses biking to coffee meetups with her Seattle friends. The self-employed communications strategist lives by herself in Ballard, and the inability to jump on a plane without hesitation to see her family in the Midwest has resulted in “really weird extra layers of isolation.”

Ballard’s Andrea Learned recently joined a Zoom call with a group of like-minded biking advocates she met on Twitter. “We forged a connection that we probably would not have made were it not for this. (Courtesy of Andrea Learned)
Ballard’s Andrea Learned recently joined a Zoom call with a group of like-minded biking advocates she met on Twitter. “We forged a connection that we probably would not have made were it not for this. (Courtesy of Andrea Learned)

A passionate cycling advocate and active social media user, Learned, who’s in her 50s, had virtually met a crew of fellow biking enthusiasts scattered around North America through Twitter. Before the pandemic, one of them floated the idea of meeting up in a central location someday. The coronavirus put those plans on ice, but instead, the Canadian man organized a virtual happy hour (on Learned’s birthday) for 10 or so of the frequent retweeters who had never actually met.

“It was so cute because he’s not a guy who’s involved in technology at all,” Learned says. “He was so motivated to figure out ways for us to connect.” Since the call, they’ve been engaging even more on Twitter. “We forged a connection that we probably would not have made happen were it not for this ‘holy [expletive]’ time.”

While Learned’s been FaceTiming and texting with local friends, too, a pandemic-incited family group text has reenergized her relationship with her two sisters. Learned says she doesn’t have a ton in common with her sisters, who are married with kids and have “serious corporate jobs,” which made it more challenging to stay connected. Through the family text chain, which Learned expects to maintain once normal life resumes, she now gets daily updates on one of her sister’s home renovation projects.

“It’s like we’re having ‘This Old House’ via text,” Learned says. “I’m feeling like I have more of a sense of their daily lives, which I haven’t for a long time.”

When the coronavirus put their pub trivia meetups on hold, Jay Weisberger and his friends got to thinking. The public relations professional uses Kahoot!, a learning-game app, in work meetings, so his group decided to host their own private, virtual trivia night using Kahoot! and Zoom. After creating his own Seattle-centric quiz, Weisberger sent out a Saturday-night invite to the usual crew to see if they were free. The response was pretty unanimous, he said. “People were like, um, we’re always free.”

Jay Weisberger of Magnolia organized a virtual pub quiz with his friends using Zoom and learning-game app Kahoot! (Courtesy Jay Weisberger)
Jay Weisberger of Magnolia organized a virtual pub quiz with his friends using Zoom and learning-game app Kahoot! (Courtesy Jay Weisberger)

While the first round of digital bar trivia went well (with the winner earning an $80 gift certificate to Fremont restaurant The Whale Wins), it wasn’t quite the same as anchoring a table at their usual watering holes, Mulleady’s Irish Pub and Boxcar Ale House in Magnolia. There’s no grabbing one more round because the mood’s just right. No sidebar convos at one end of the table. No gut-busting story sparked by the next song on TouchTunes and no meeting new people. (At least we can finally quit talking about the Seattle Freeze?)

“It’s a little bit more of an organic fun,” Weisberger, 41, says of those real-world hangs. “That’s the harder thing. We’re trying to create these touch points with our friends right now.”

Is tech helping?

All the tech at our disposal (at least for those who can afford it) might help heal our ruptured social networks. But whether or not we’re better able to cope with these unprecedented circumstances because of it is another story.

Seattle Pacific University professor Amy Mezulis has been studying how the pandemic and social distancing have impacted our mental health. Early results from her first 2,400 participants, age 14 and up, indicate a strong correlation between increased use of social media (such as Facebook and Instagram) and symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and alcohol use. This tracks with prepandemic data, particularly among younger people, who are more likely to have increased their social media time in recent weeks. The clinical psychologist believes that because social media doesn’t typically produce the most substantive interactions, the more that users rely on it, the less likely they are to feel like they’re getting meaningful social support elsewhere.

But what about all those virtual happy hours and text chains? Good stuff, right?

“I’m doing all those things with my friends and it’s been really fun,” Mezulis says. “And I actually think part of this is building our connection. So anecdotally, I would say I think there’s certain ways in which we can leverage some of these technologies to build connections right now. But our data would suggest that on average, that’s not what we see.”

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Of course, our well-being depends on more than just how much time we spend on the ’Gram. Myriad personality characteristics and situational factors (home life, loss of income) make us more or less susceptible to the pandemic’s weight on our mental health, Mezulis says.

“We’re all in this together”

The University of Washington’s Katie Davis has studied the role of technology in young people’s lives for 15-plus years. Since the onset of the pandemic, the co-author of “The App Generation” has seen many positive examples of people coming together online — musicians livestreaming concerts, novelists doing digital readings and even coronavirus meme accounts. She’s more worried about the long game.

“In many ways, I think social media is really a lifeline right now, for everybody,” Davis says. “For teens, this is right up their alley and they know what to do. But as time goes on, we all need face-to-face interaction and connection, and that sort of grounding.”

The UW Information School associate professor’s concern is that without a balanced communication diet, teens and young adults won’t have the corrective offline counterweights to the more postured, “amplified and magnified” style of social media.

“They are going through a time of change where they’re reworking their family relationships, peers are a major focus, they’re figuring out who they are as individuals,” Davis says. “And if all of a sudden that’s all gone online for everybody, I think that does raise important questions about impacts on well-being and sources of resilience.”

Provided we’re getting our social nutrients elsewhere, maybe the occasional ’rona mask selfie or toilet paper meme isn’t all bad.

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Kindergarten teacher Nagarajan isn’t a high-volume poster, but even Instagram snapshots from people she doesn’t know personally give her “this sense of ‘Oh OK, we’re all in this together.’”

Between WhatsApp calls with loved ones in her native France (over coffee or cocktails, depending on the time zone), Sophie Laurent-Hallet posted a photo in the popular View From My Window Facebook group. The pic of a blooming magnolia tree through her Bellevue window drew more than 2,000 likes and nearly 500 comments from across the globe.

“People from Australia, London, Spain … all over the world saying ‘hi’ to me and ‘stay safe,’” she says. “It’s really overwhelming, I’d say. People feel the need to connect with others to reassure themselves.”

For Weisberger, of pub quiz industriousness, a sourdough awakening changed his perspective on some of social media’s perceived inanities. As making bread became a pandemic trend of sorts and Instagram was besieged by sourdough shots, his reflex was to groan. Really, another one?

“You flip through your Insta stories and you start to realize … that’s actually them coping,” he says. “That’s actually them trying to connect and not just brag about their dinner, but sharing a little slice of their life right now because that’s where their life is.”

Maybe we can get through this. One connection at a time.