A few weekends ago, I was sitting in the backseat of a 2014 Honda CR-V, next to a tall and swaying stack of backordered National Geographic and GQ magazines brought along for collaging. I listened as some half-friends, half-acquaintances debriefed the party they went to the night before.
I tried to contribute to the conversation, making a few jokes that fell relatively flat and comments that seemed to miss the mark. I’m not saying these people were cold or uninterested, it wasn’t that at all, but I found myself experiencing a distinctly familiar yet bygone feeling, coming to me like an old forgotten friend: the awkwardness of social self-awareness, and the self-loathing that comes with trying to make friends. You know, the peacocking of it all. I realized sitting in that CR-V that it’s been a while since I’ve really tried to make new friends. The friends I’ve made over the last few years have been friends of luck and happenstance, and mostly of necessity.
It’s been three years this month since the necessary evil of social distancing first began. I’ve been thinking lately about connectedness and my relationships, and the ways I feel different after such a long period of limited social interaction. I talked with some of my closest friends, wanting to understand if they feel impacted in the same ways I do. Maci Brown said the pandemic made her realize how fragile the world is, and being isolated exacerbated her existing anxieties because there was no distraction or escape. Lately, she said it feels like she’s had to re-learn who she is around people.
As the pandemic forcibly changed the shape of our everyday lives, many people got hit hard with mental health challenges, myself included. All of my classes were online that first Fall and Winter. I spent most of my time at my computer, and watching lecture after lecture in pajamas was just plain poisonous for my morale.
In December 2020, a Statista survey found that 56% of Americans aged 18-24 experienced symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder that year. Many of those challenges persisted, and
another Statista survey found that 41% of American college students experienced symptoms of depression in 2021. My friend Mary Harris told me that her mental health took a blow in those years because of all the time she spent indoors, away from loved ones.
According to a study by the University of Queensland published in Social Science & Medicine in 2013, inclusion in social groups reduces a person’s likelihood for current depression, and prevents future depression. The more groups you’re a part of, the greater the preventative effects. This is not to say that having friends or even just acquaintances is the end-all-be-all cure to depression, but rather to show the relationship between social belonging and mental wellbeing.
During the first lockdown, when there was still a nervous novelty to the pandemic, I remember friends, family members, and classmates posting funny things on social media about toilet paper and the apocalypse and trying to make the situation feel more tolerable. I remember watching videos of people around the world singing together from their balconies and feeling a deep sense of humanity, a sense that we were all experiencing something together.
To a large extent, social media usage fulfills many of our evolutionary needs that also occur offline, like connecting with others, managing our reputations in the minds of others, and prompting self-referential thought, according to an article by Dar Meshi, Diana I. Tamir, and Hauke R. Heekeren published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2015. These social needs are hardwired in order to ensure our survival.
In the absence of real-world social input, or at least not enough of it, we turned to social media to satisfy those innate drives for belonging or companionship. My personal vice then was TikTok, where I felt like I had a sense of community because of the infamous seamlessly tailored feed. The problem is, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, all of them, they’re carefully crafted to be addictive.
Rebecca Rast, Joshua T. Coleman and Christina S. Simmers reported in the Journal of Social Media in Society in 2021 that many social media users experience time distortion and behavior changes, and even withdrawal symptoms when they take a break. In addition to the addictiveness, what we do on social media is not an accurate depiction of real-world relationships or community. Some people post candids of their happiest or most picturesque moments, and some people post cropped and/or filtered selfies. Very few people post about the boring or bad days.
Over time there are negative effects to getting a significant amount of our social stimuli through these simulated channels. Not only is social media addiction detrimental to our self-esteem, but it also harms our real-world relationships and can make it more difficult or uncomfortable to maintain in-person conversations, according to Rast, Coleman and Simmers.
My friend Jayne Barber was telling me about how she feels like there’s a social media lingo word bank inside her brain, and she has to consciously choose not to use those words or speak that way. We are forgetting how to communicate without a backspace, how to maintain eye contact, how to be honest and not polished.
I realized the other day, standing in front of my classmates and giving a presentation, that I have a hard time looking in people’s eyes while I’m talking to them. I didn’t used to be like that. These days, in tense or uncomfortable conversations, I instinctually prefer texting rather than talking in person. Of course when I think about it, I know that an in-person conversation would be so much more beneficial for all involved parties, but those conversations are more vulnerable.
What I’m trying to say is that lately I’ve been realizing the co-creational effects social distancing and social media have had on me. I’ve realized that my social muscles have atrophied. The three friends I talked to for this article all said they have a harder time focusing on things that take awhile, and they feel more antsy if things aren’t maintaining their attention. I’ve noticed the same thing in myself. But I don’t want to be the type of person who’s easily bored. I want to enjoy things that take time and don’t offer immediate gratification.
So the question, nearly three years to the day after the first lockdown, is what do we do now? Well, I think it will look different for all of us. For me, I deleted social media apps from my phone and I am putting more conscious and care-filled energy and time into my friendships. I’m trying to compliment strangers more and not rehearse what to say before a phone call.
In the backseat of that 2014 CR-V, I was grateful to be with half-friends, half-acquaintances. I was grateful to be bantering aimlessly and listening to eclectic shuffled music. As Psychology Today phrased it, I was grateful to embrace my fumblings and “enjoy the moment for what it’s worth.” I think there is quite a lot of worthiness in each moment for those who pay attention.