Remember a few weeks ago, when Zoom emerged as the digital solution to social distancing? All of a sudden, videoconferencing became not only a way to take meetings from home, but also a way to check in on friends, date, and even party. It was a golden age of Zoom happy hours, Zoom movie nights, Zoom brunches. But as we reach what feels like week 2,000 of social distancing, the mere sight of the illustrated blue app icon can conjure feelings of social anxiety.
As someone with a typically non-existent social calendar, I was surprised to find that it only took a global pandemic for people to start making plans with me. People who I never talked to on the phone before are sending me Zoom invitations to “catch up.” I even fielded an invite to a virtual poetry reading from my college’s alumni association. According to some fans-turned-fatigued users of the app, the same dread that once came with an overbooked social calendar now follows a packed Zoom meeting schedule.
“I’ve just come to the realization that if I wouldn’t entertain friends in my home every single night of the week IRL, I don’t need to do it on Zoom, either,” says Jeanne, 32, a first-time WFH employee. She adds that dealing with anxiety around coronavirus has made her “more tired and less interested in socializing than usual,” despite a short-lived affair with video-chat hangouts.
Dr. Hilarie Cash, PhD, LMHC, CSAT, WSGC, and founder of reSTART Life, a treatment center for digital addictions, is exhausted from “impersonal” online meetings herself. “We don’t quite look in each other’s eyes [on a video chat], or pick up the nuances of body language,” she tells Bustle. But most importantly, she points out, “We don’t get to experience limbic resonance — which is our birthright as social animals.” Limbic resonance is the energetic exchange that occurs with IRL interactions. “The in-person experience (if we feel safe and cared for) releases a bouquet of neurochemicals in our limbic brains that keeps us well regulated emotionally and physiologically.” Without it, Dr. Cash says, we don’t get to feel the satisfaction of being connected in the same way we do IRL.
Hailey, 21, who has worked from home for two years, says that she “feels guilty,” but she’s more interested in having some relaxing quarantine downtime. “If I accepted every virtual call or event or hangout I’ve been invited to, I could quite literally be busier than I was before.”
Melina, 33, tells Bustle that personal video calls are starting to feel invasive. “My home is my sacred space and having to constantly share it with others is starting to feel like boundary crossing, even when they are close friends.” Having to push the litter box out of frame or trying to shush her infant inconspicuously off screen is tiring. “I feel like I always have to be ‘on’. Knowing that my face is stretched across someone’s computer screen like a spotlight makes me feel like I have to exert a lot of energy to seem engaged, even more than in person,” Melina adds. But the most stressful part about accepting an invitation for a social Zoom meeting, according to Melina, is finding an excuse to hang up. “We’re all stuck at home with nothing to do, so there are limited reasons to end the call and it’s hard to find a nice way to do so.”
While everyone that I spoke to could recognize the privilege and utility that Zoom provides them professionally, they’re not looking to spend more time on the app than absolutely necessary. “Honestly, I just want to get the hell away from screens at the end of the day,” Jeanne says, despite her need and understanding of the desire for connection.
Contrary to the illusion that “face to face” screen time provides, Dr. Cash says it cannot evoke the level neurological connection we crave while we’re practicing social distancing, “and, therefore, it actually drains us rather than replenishing us.”
That said, seeing someone’s face is more neurologically stimulating than simply hearing their voice, a 2013 study published in Cyberpsychology: Journal Of Psychosocial Research found. So instead of ignoring your friend’s noble attempts at fostering community during an isolating time, strike a balance; space out your social engagements, or feel free politely decline. It’s important to “manage the stress of isolation,” Dr. Cash says, so do whatever makes you feel most peaceful at home. If that’s opening up your living room to a gallery of digital faces every night, lean into that desire and socialize. But if that’s closing your screen at the end of the day and disengaging, that’s fine, too. Treat your virtual social life the same way you would treat your IRL social life.
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