While government calls for social distancing have led some people to think they should use social media more, using these tools the wrong way can increase loneliness. A communications expert offers tips on using social media to improve connections.
As many people settle into new routines that severely limit their ability to see colleagues, friends, and family, they are hopping on social media hoping to revive some of those lost connections. However, one expert warns that if you’re not careful about how you use social media, you could end up feeling less connected and more depressed.
“If you’re already feeling anxious or upset, anything that is problematic offline can perpetuate online,” said Natalie Pennington, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor of communication studies. “In my own research, I interviewed people who quit social media. If they were already feeling pretty stressed day-to-day, when they logged on, they saw what they viewed as, ‘These people having this fantastic life, and I’m not. This person has a job and a family, and I don’t have those things.’”
Pennington said these feelings of loneliness or depression generally appear when people log on to social media with the intent to just watch or scroll through their feed and see what’s going on.
“When you log on, and you’re not actually talking to people, you don’t feel any less lonely,” she said. “You actually feel more lonely.”
To avoid these negative feelings, plan to be interactive while you’re on social media, rather than watching other people’s lives scroll by.
“The benefit in social media is connecting to people, so post a status update,” Pennington said. “I posted one last week that said, ‘Hey, I have more time to cook. Send me your favorite recipes.’ That was a broader connection because it allowed people to respond and interact.”
Liking and commenting on other posts can be helpful in providing feelings of social activity. She also recommends strengthening connections you’ve let wane. “You have an ability to reconnect,” Pennington said. “You can talk to someone you haven’t talked to in two years or five years.”
While people aren’t always friends with their colleagues on social media, Pennington recommended finding ways to connect with them as well. “Having those social relationships with colleagues are important,” she said. “We have a group text going. We have a once a week virtual happy hour with those who are newer faculty. We can use technology to sustain relationships. It’s just a matter of taking the time.”
Pennington added that the key to moving through this unique period is to reach out for those social connections and, maybe, ditch the current name given to what we’re doing.
“I really hate that everyone is saying to socially distance,” Pennington said. “This is physical distance. There are so many ways to stay connected. Some of my relationships are closer now than they were days before.”