I was supposed to start my senior year in high school last month. Instead, I started my senior year in my pajamas in my living room, staring down a potential nine more months of online school, not knowing if I will ever go to prom or have an in-person graduation ceremony. Some days, self-isolation can make me feel like I’m drowning. Not only is everything that I’m excited for getting canceled, but I’ve lost my entire social support system as well.
After spending hours online every day, I and many other people have discovered that Zoom or FaceTime cannot sufficiently replace being with people in person. This triggers a deep sense of loneliness. However, if we can understand why we all feel lonely right now, we can learn a very valuable lesson from this experience.
We were already a long way down the path of replacing our friends with screens before the pandemic by using social media. If we can understand our social media behavior, we might be able to learn a key social lesson from the pandemic and improve our well-being in the long run.
To understand why social media take away from our social needs, it’s important to understand smartphone addiction. It’s a real phenomenon. When we use our phones, they provide us new information, which is exciting to the brain, so it releases dopamine. The dopamine essentially rewards the behavior, thus creating a cycle of constantly checking your phone. Note: If you don’t think you’re addicted to your phone, try taking the Smartphone Compulsion Test developed at the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. The results may surprise you.
When you’re constantly on your phone or other mobile devices, they take away from other parts of your life, like outdoor activities, hobbies and seeing your friends, all of which contribute to your greater overall well-being. Social media are hard because they present themselves as a social activity.
But virtual connections don’t have the same social benefits as in-person experiences. Virtual connection only makes you think you are being social. You are not fostering any real connections. You’re just tricking your brain. If you’re feeling lonely, the human desire to be social would normally prompt you to seek connection. However, if you’re using social media, your brain believes you have already made a connection, so the social drive goes away. Your social and emotional needs never get met. As you can imagine, that has detrimental effects on well-being, and contributes greatly to loneliness.
We can recognize that pattern of replacing in-person connection with virtual connection during quarantine. While in isolation, our ratio of virtual to in-person connections is so extreme that it’s impossible not to notice the negative effects. In the past few months, as I sat on my couch at home, I thought about all the times I’d spent scrolling on Instagram or watching TV after school instead of hanging out with my friends. I thought about some of my old friends I hadn’t seen in a while, even before quarantine, and regretted that I had replaced seeing them in person with an occasional Instagram comment or Snapchat message. In this era of Covid-19 and extreme isolation, we as humans need in-person social interactions to fully support our well-being.
As stay-at-home orders get lifted and things start to revert to normal, I hope my social habits are the one thing that don’t return to how they were before. I want to be more proactive when it comes to making in-person social plans. That means meeting a friend for coffee instead of texting them or doing homework and hanging out with a friend after school instead of spending an hour on Instagram when I get home. It also means planning activities for my friends like hiking, working out or making art, and using phones as a tool to plan those in-person connections, not replace them.
My hope is that we can understand how excessive social media use mirrors isolation and use this experience of loneliness during quarantine to improve our social media habits and better support our overall well-being after the pandemic ends.
Megan Dunnigan is a senior at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland. She is involved in politics and activism in the Seattle area.