When virtual becomes reality

How is Covid-19 affecting the way we relate to the world

We once scorned online relationships, assuming connections made in real life were somehow more meaningful. But with the Covid-19 pandemic keeping us apart, our digital social spaces have suddenly become more vital. We must learn to recognise bonds formed online as just as important as any others. 

Before coronavirus, many of us were engaged in a pitched battle with our smartphones. Increasingly convinced that our time on social media was like a cancer, eating away at our potential for purposeful and valuable lives, we deleted apps from phones and fretted over our children’s screen time.

Before coronavirus, the mainstream media skewed technophobic and fuelled our fear that the digital revolution might prove even more toxic to society than the industrial revolution had been before it. The industrial revolution destroyed livelihoods and created capitalist robber barons, but the digital revolution introduced AI automation and data-exploiting social-media plutocrats. We fantasised about a return to the pre-digital Garden of Eden, before the snakes came. Those were the days of social connections ‘in real life’.

But that was then. At this moment in time, lest we and others die, real life means being confined to our homes, banned from congregating in public spaces. ‘Physical distancing’ would be more accurate phraseology, but instead we call it ‘social distancing’, our language betraying that we think of social and physical proximity as being the same thing. In this new version of ‘in real life’, though, we have no choice. If we are to socially connect with people outside of our own household, we will largely have to do it online.

Mental-health practitioners have long peered at the online environment through the sceptical lens of technophobia.

People who once drew hard distinctions between online communication and ‘real life’ contact are now less certain. The media’s technophobic discourse has turned technophilic overnight. The very experts who once encouraged us to put down our phones to promote mental health are now telling us to pick them up to ward off mental illness. Among those turncoat experts are therapeutic professionals, my colleagues.

Mental-health practitioners have long peered at the online environment through the sceptical lens of technophobia, seeing virtual interaction as a watered-down substitute for ‘real’ relating.  Large-scale analyses of thousands of therapeutic-outcome studies have repeatedly shown that the bond between therapist and client is the crucial factor predicting effective psychotherapy, and many therapists still worry that ‘relational depth’ just can’t be achieved online. On every training programme I have ever worked, therapy trainees couldn’t count any remotely conducted sessions towards their final tally of hours for qualification. We even required them to have clinical supervision in person. Apparently, to even discuss one’s work with clients, it was necessary to be breathing the same air.

At this moment in time, though, every therapeutic practitioner I know is preparing for online work, some of them with considerable fear and loathing. If early 20th-century Vienna had enjoyed remote synchronous communication with high-resolution video and secure end-to-end encryption, perhaps Sigmund Freud would have fully embraced it. Perhaps physical co-presence as a prerequisite for real relating would not have become the sacred cow that it is today. But Vienna’s coffeeshops featured just coffee, not WiFi, and we still persist in glibly classifying offline encounters as ‘real’ and online relating as ‘fake’, or at least severely diminished. Coronavirus has changed the status of online communication from unhealthy vice to potential saving grace – perhaps it’s an opportune moment to have some of our assumptions challenged.

There is only one circumstance in which it would be impossible to build and maintain deep, emotional, mutually supportive relationships online, and that circumstance is having no access to Internet-connected devices. Considerable empirical evidence suggests that most of our assumptions about the inherent inferiority of online interaction are either unproven or untrue. If you are connected, then any barriers have less to do with some proven, consistent difference between online and offline relating, and more to do with you. Your individual personality, attitudes, and behaviours are what will ultimately determine your experience of and benefit from online relationships.

Some barriers to online communication are indisputably external. Text-only conversations, rendered ambiguous through the absence of context and physical cues, do make it harder for us to understand each other and feel truly connected; emoticons can only help so much.  When the naturalness of oral, synchronous conversation is disrupted through lags, dropouts, pixilated video or bad audio, it is discomfiting and less satisfying. When there are no such disruptions, however, we are far more likely to have a positive experience of online interaction. What we are doing online matters too. Passive users of social media, people who scroll and lurk and focus on the feeds of strangers and influencers, are highly prone to experiencing envy, loneliness, and inferiority-inducing social comparisons.

It is possible for online interactions to be even better at building and maintaining relational intimacy and closeness than offline ones.

When the picture is sharp and the audio clear, though, and when our online engagements serve a clear relational purpose, the online world can be our oyster of feel-good social connectedness. In one 2013 study, research participants actually rated online disclosures as being more intimate than disclosures with exactly the same content that took place offline. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the online disclosures had a stronger effect on feelings of intimacy than the physical, face-to-face disclosures did. That’s right - contrary to our most closely held automatic assumptions – it is possible for online interactions to be even better at building and maintaining relational intimacy and closeness than offline ones. As far as screen time goes, our worst fears and most common assumptions may be unfounded too. Last year, a major analysis of the data on teenagers and screen time was published by scholars at the Oxford Internet Institute, demonstrating that the negative impact of screen time on adolescents was actually barely discernible.

Another thing that keeps humans happy and healthy is social support. Because people who lack social support suffer increased mortality and decreased well-being, we are right to be concerned about what coronavirus isolation might do to us. The research, however, shows clearly that despite the vocabulary we use, physical distancing and social distancing are not the same. The evidence for the benefit of online social support gives us cause for optimism, with a substantial body of literature demonstrating that the online giving and receiving of social support functions pretty much the same as it does offline. Strong, intimate, supportive relationships, it seems, are readily nurtured and maintained online. Where this does not occur, it is largely because of differences between individual people and varying attitudes to technology.

If we can all mobilise a greater openness to experience when it comes to ways of socially connecting, the fears of coronavirus sparking a second pandemic of loneliness and social disconnection will have been greatly exaggerated.

The key to surviving coronavirus isolation socially unscathed probably lies in whether you are high or low on perceived reality of online interactions (PROI). People high in PROI experience online interactions as being just as real and valuable as offline ones, but individuals low in PROI think online contact is inherently less real, good, and/or valid. If someone says that they can’t really communicate if they’re not physically with someone, or that it’s not an actual conversation if it takes place through a screen, or that they can’t discuss really important things unless it is ‘in person’, they are low PROI. For people with that perception, physical isolation may equate to social isolation and, potentially, all the harms that go with it. High PROI individuals are likely to be far less negatively affected by quarantine and may even emerge from it more socially fulfilled than before.

Generational differences can play a part here. ‘Digital natives’, people who have grown up with technologically mediated communication, may tend towards higher PROI through a lifetime to exposure to online communication. Anyone can feel the benefit of online interactions, however, if they are willing and able to log on and try it out, behaving like they are high PROI. One’s individual personality traits can make people more or less willing to exit their comfort zones, of course. If two people plot equally high on the ‘Extraversion’ dimension of Goldberg’s ‘Big Five’ personality model, they will be equally keen for social contact during coronavirus restrictions. If one of those people scores much lower on ‘Openness to Experience’, however, they may struggle to get over their aversion to trying something new.

Although personality traits are relatively stable by middle childhood, they can and do change throughout life. Major life experiences are among the forces that can shift our personality characteristics, and who among us can recall a major life experience like the one we’re living through now? In this moment, if we can all mobilise a greater openness to experience when it comes to ways of socially connecting, the fears of coronavirus sparking a second pandemic of loneliness and social disconnection will have been greatly exaggerated. We can inoculate ourselves against the fate of social disconnection. Online or off, it once again appears that there is ‘nothing either good or bad / but thinking makes it so’. Shakespeare’s wisdom, once again, proves even more perennially useful than Freud’s.

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