LAWRENCE, KS— The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the way we keep in touch, but will it last when face-to-face conversation is safe again?
I’ve been interviewed dozens of times about my new book, “Relating Through Technology” (Cambridge University Press). Journalists keep asking me, do you think this will transform our habits of mediated connection?
My response is: I doubt it, but I hope it does.
Let me explain why.
Prior to the pandemic, around two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face. Many of them were routine conversations at work, at school, or in our communities as people went about their everyday lives.
Sadly, those types of conversations are not coming back soon, and not with the comfort and ease that they once had for a long time.
One thing is certain; the pandemic fundamentally reshuffled our patterns of communication.
In March 2020, as COVID-19 lockdowns were imposed and those opportunities for routine FtF contact shut down, Americans turned to media to connect. The rate of voice calls doubled their peak traffic from 2019 and the length of calls increase by one-third, the use of Zoom quadrupled and social media use increased, particularly on laptop and desktop computers.
Throughout history, relationships have endured despite physical distance, but never before have people had to adjust their patterns so quickly and had so many options to choose from to do so. Voice calls, emails, text messages, social media, and video chat were joined by Gather, Animal Crossing, and zoom happy hours.
Despite the abundance of options, I am just not convinced Americans will keep those new habits of mediated interaction intact as the pandemic continues, especially when we get to a point where the risk of infection from face-to-face contact is much lower than it is now.
The last chapter of my book focuses on the question, why don’t people keep in touch with the most important people in their lives? The available evidence is that we only have the capacity to keep in touch with a few important others through all forms of interaction. We reserve high-energy modalities – like voice calls and video chats – for our closest relationships – like our parents, children, romantic partners, and best friends. We relate to less close friends and family through social media, photo sharing platforms, and even gaming.
Yet, even with those close others, it is rare to have weekly contact with close friends and family we don’t live with, especially if they live out of town. Few people make it a priority, even when they know the relationship is important and feel keeping in touch is valuable.
So, I’m skeptical that people will keep in touch through technology at the rates they do now, especially if face-to-face access comes back.
But, we should relate through technology.
The evidence is clear; having close relationships and communicating frequently with those people is associated with all of the most important things in life – happiness, life satisfaction, well-being.
But to get those benefits, we have to prioritize it.
In my book, I offer key insights on how to sustain a healthy social life in general. These suggestions are especially important while observing the social distancing restrictions of COVID-19.
We can’t keep in touch with everyone, and we should prioritize what I call the first 15 – or the closest relationships in our lives, which includes a healthy mix of friends and family. Fifteen people, including those who you live with, that’s within the realm of possibility for most people.
My book closely looks at the evidence of how different modalities vary in their ability to connect each other. Voice calls have long been reserved for engaged, intimate conversations, especially about important topics. These conversations tend to be reserved for close partners and make us feel more connected to one another. During the pandemic, people need to replace what is lost when we lose face-to-face contact.
Finally, we must choose to routinely and intentionally keep in touch. This means building a routine of contact. Call or write one or two close friends once a month, and make it a priority. Text or email when you think of someone – just something that reminds you of them or thought they’d like. As advanced as technology gets, it doesn’t matter unless you use it in a way that nourishes your relationships. So, although I am doubtful that we’ll keep these new practices of mediated communication, I hope people establish new routines of communication with the most important people in their life.