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Fighting for Facetime in a Pandemic New Data Tracks How In-Person Interaction Has Plunged

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Above image credit: Zoom Video Communications is rapidly emerging as the latest internet gold mine as millions of people flock to its conferencing service to see colleagues, friends and family while tethered to their homes during the pandemic. (Wilson Ring | AP File)
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5 minute read

The KCBookClub had its last in-person meetup at Carrie Habib’s home in March of this year. 

Bowls of Latvian Stew were served to the club’s guests. It was an homage to the novel that was discussed, “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles.

“It’s kind of relevant because he’s under house arrest in Moscow,” Habib said. “Who knew it would be so prescient!”

Now Habib and her friends, who have met up and discussed nearly 450 books since the club started in 1975, are forced to hold meetings remotely. Instead of sharing a beverage in person, the club toasts to their webcams on Zoom.

“What’s really great is having this normal activity that we’ve really enjoyed,” Habib said. “Usually in an hour and a half to two hour meeting we only talk about the book for 30 minutes. The rest of the time we are talking about our kids, our jobs, politics.” 

Digital meetups have become the new norm in the midst of the pandemic. According to a TOP Data study, Missourians are having half as many face-to-face social interactions as they did in 2019. Meanwhile, Kansans are having nearly one-third fewer face-to-face interactions than last year.

Mapping Social Distance

TOP Data tracked the change in daily face-to-face interactions by state during the pandemic. Red states in this interactive map are closer to pre-pandemic levels. States in green have maintained more social distance.

Organized groups like the KCBookClub have had to adapt to the forced change brought about by the coronavirus. But the digital world has given groups like this a chance to maintain interaction, and maintain their health.

“As long as you have zoom or a computer you can keep those interactions,” Habib said. “You just have to keep a sense of humor and adapt.”

Digital isn’t cure for loneliness

Mandatory stay-at-home orders early on in the pandemic left people quarantined from the outside world. According to a Lancet review, that can negatively affect mental health.

According to the review, studies that surveyed people who have been quarantined showed a high prevalence of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder. Symptoms included depression, stress, low mood and irritability. The latter two are the most commonly seen symptoms.

Peter Helm, a postdoctoral researcher who studies interpersonal isolation, said that a more predictive effect of the pandemic mentally is the rise in loneliness.

“Humans are more or less wired biologically for social connection,” Helm said. “Our brains are wired to pick up on social cues, and we feel a sense of normalcy when we have these good face-to-face interactions. Actually feeling like someone’s full attention is on you, or yours is on them with no distractions.”

An IZA Institute of Labor Economics study found that Google searches for words like loneliness, worry and sadness significantly increased during the shutdown. 

Helm says the findings of studies during the pandemic have been mixed. Some found that more people are reporting being lonely. Others have found that people are surprisingly resilient to the impact the decrease in face-to-face interactions has had.

Video chat has been an escape for many, and an excuse to have social interactions while maintaining social distance. Helm said this was fine for awhile, but we are already beginning to see the need for face-to-face interactions to become more frequent.

“There is a tolerance for it right now,” Helm said. “As we’ve collected data, we are seeing people are starting to get tired of it, as we can see with protests to re-enter the world. As we continue to collect data, we should see the novelty of it decline.”

We are already in the middle of a mental health crisis, and Helm is worried loneliness could get worse as social interactions become less frequent. He described what is referred to as chronic loneliness. People suffering from chronic loneliness feel lonely all of the time, and instead of trying to seek out interactions to make them feel better, they withdraw further into themselves. 

“Chronic loneliness can lead to this self-perpetuating cycle,” Helm said. “I think there is a real risk that a greater portion of the population might fall into chronic loneliness. Social isolation orders are forcing people out of the situations where they can find connections to make them feel better.”

Helm encouraged people, if they can safely, to get out and have face-to-face interactions to combat loneliness. Additionally, exercise can be a good way to fight off lonely feelings. It can increase energy and motivation, and encourage social interactions.

A community for you

In the early stages of the pandemic, the release of the latest edition of the Nintendo franchise, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” was a glimmer of hope, and a way for people to interact while they were stuck at home.

Online gaming has been a way for people to keep up with friends, or meet new ones, for decades. It has never been easier to do than it is right now.

Discord is a commonly used voice/video chat and instant messaging platform that has been used as a gathering place for online communities. In Kansas City, the KC Gaming Discord has created a digital space where people can meet and express shared interests, listen to music, attend movie screenings and of course, play games.

The server was founded one year ago. It started when its admin and founder Briggens (his name in the server, and preferred reference for this article) moved to the city and, like most people who move to a new city, struggled to meet new people. The server’s purpose was to center a community around a specific location, to give people the opportunity to meet those in close proximity to them.

“Originally I thought this would be a meetup group with a game night every once in a while,” Briggens said. “When everything closed down it felt like we were in a prime position to say ‘hey if you still want to meet up, this is a good way to do that’.”

A year later, the server has nearly 550 members. Briggens says that just over 100 of them are frequently active. 

The server has fostered a sense of community that has helped fight loneliness brought on by the pandemic.

“Being a stay-at-home mom, I don’t get out much, and with COVID, I really don’t go out,” said Catchunks (her name in the server and preferred reference for this article), a moderator for the server. “Just hopping into voice chat when I’m feeling a little lonely, knowing people are out there who are into the things I am feels so rewarding and nice.”

“Sunday’s used to be my least favorite day of the week, now I look forward to them,” Priest, one of the server’s moderators, said. “We do music club, and I play Rocket League with my buds. It’s helped a lot during COVID with a lot of people.”

There is no pressure to be a “serious gamer” on the server, either. For about an hour, about eight people gathered in one of the server’s voice channels and played a couple of rounds of Codenames, a popular board game. When a couple of members didn’t know the rules to the game, a couple of members took time to explain, and made a noticeable effort to get the “noobs” involved.

“Who cares how good you are at video games? This is about making friends and being social,” Briggens said.

With the variety of things constantly going on in the server, it’s likely that most people will be able to find a community that will align with their interests.

“If your thing is knitting, gaming or gardening, there will be a community out there for you, you just need to find them,” Catchunks said. “You never have to be alone on the internet, there is always going to be someone who is into the same things you are.”

The server also boasts a diverse group of people. Gaming culture has the (somewhat earned) reputation of being a male dominated subculture. KC Gaming Discord has multiple women in moderator positions.

“We have all ages, parents, non-parents, single people,” Briggens said. “You don’t have to worry about fitting in, because everyone fits in.”

“There is no pressure here,” Priest said. “I think everyone in this server knows what it feels like to be excluded from a small group of people. This thing was built for people to join, and meet and enjoy themselves.

If and when social restrictions are lifted, the KC Gaming Discord will go back to doing in-person meetups. But with an increase in traffic since March, they will look a lot different from the 30-person get-togethers at arcade bars in KC. Until then, they will continue to welcome anyone to fight off some of the loneliness they’ve been feeling with the online activity of their choosing. 

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.


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