The other day, I attended a Digital ThinkIn with Tortoise Media – it’s an open editorial meeting contributing to Tortoise’s content. The topic? ‘What does Gen Z have to say about the Coronavirus?’ The debate reflected upon the UK education system, a burdened bureaucracy, and the impact of a changed lifestyle for individuals as young as 13 years old.
Suddenly, a student noted that he felt social media had gone too far in its content at times – especially since he had endured the loss of a close family member due to the virus.
Media is preoccupied with constant coverage of our new normal, whether it’s the political aspects, the economic ramifications of COVID-19, or the insistent issue of an infodemic. We watch up to date estimates of infections and losses of life, like seconds on a clock. Only recent literature has considered the mental health implications of a life in isolation, I know most of us live it 24/7.
Since we embarked on our new normal of staying at home, innovative ways of using social media platforms have emerged. Instagram Live is a consistent broadcast channel which now features exercise videos, quiz shows, discussions, DJ sessions and more. House Party is the new essential app to download – a recent report found that the app had a stark growth of 79.4% since January. twitter is being updated by the millisecond, and nearly every meme or story refers to the sole topic of concern at the moment: the novel coronavirus.
However, after an evening spent with 200 people on Zoom, I couldn’t forget what the attendee has said; social media had been truly insensitive at times during the COVID-19 crisis.
His experience is nothing new – far from it. Studies, reports and media coverage have – nearly since the dawn of digital social networking – been discussing the double-faced nature of these platforms. Social media is often accused of provoking mental health issues such as depression and Anxiety, while also being a crucial platform for global social interactions and connections overcoming issues of distance.
Even after considering all the differing viewpoints, the statement by this young student still demands a reflection on social media’s role during a pandemic.
I went to the source, online social networking platforms, and asked the question: has social media been a source of evil or comfort in the time of a global pandemic?
The responses were ambiguous. Several individuals had found it to be a source of evil, one sparking strong feelings of anxiety. One person, based in Sweden, stated that she is on it nearly every hour. “It makes my head hurt and I get more anxiety,” she said. While seeing it as a source of anxiety, she also pointed out the addictive nature of social media during this pandemic; “It’s like a reflex to press on the app even if I don’t want to… I kind of, in a weird way, feel obligated to be on social media.”
In the beginning of 2020, it was confirmed that 3.8 billion people are now on social media platforms – almost half of the world population. So what happens when that group of individuals are forced into isolation, alongside their devices which are packed with social media outlets?
Evidently, social media naturally becomes a near-complete substitution for human interaction. However, whether individuals feel forced into these platforms more during a global pandemic due to increased excess time on their hands, the hunger for social connections, or simply a need to stay updated on what is happening outside their walls, is still debatable.
Social media can cultivate not only a feeling of anxiety, but also of guilt. Articles and posts on social media reflect a general sense of obligation to do more now when we are at home. This guilt emerges as the daily tasks have eroded, and we no longer complete and achieve the duties we had become used to – our new year’s resolution to hit the gym, or commitments to accelerate within our profession. Recently decided resolutions and plans often reach a crashing halt, causing feelings of guilt, and an obligation to do more.
In these moments, it’s worth pointing out that we are, as a globally collective society, experiencing a trauma, together.
Not only has social media impacted us mentally, but it enacts a crucial role in incentivising our behaviour. Posts emerge with proclamations of “if I get corona, I get corona.” These are found alongside memes contemplating travelling on discounted flights – captions such as “I might as well enjoy it while it lasts,” as said by a 30 year old American to a reporter for the New York Times. Not only has a social media infodemic emerged, but also certain behaviours have been cultivated as posts promoted nonchalant attitudes.
Contrary to current news trends, it is important to acknowledge the positives of social media, and the sense of comfort it has provided during these unprecedented times. One respondent — a fellow Dane — to the question of whether social media was a comfort or simply an evil, claimed that she found it a space of comfort away from the trepidations of news outlets. She considers social media the “in-between news, which is much needed in the midst of the extreme news. Social media has provided a sense of not being alone in this. It has been ‘comforting’ seeing how other people are handling this devastating reality.”
Social media has also become a place for constant live sessions of whatever you desire. Public figures providing daily meditations to audiences of millions from around the world. Celebrities appearing consistently with workouts, discussions, game shows, and intellectual debates. Even artists have also found a fresh opportunity to broadcast their talents. London-based DJ, Drops of Tabasco, has felt particularly fortunate during this time: “The conversations I’ve heard on IG live I would never have had the privilege of hearing prior… You get to be a fly on the wall to their [performers] conversation, that alone has actually evolved my own artistry.”
Others have also found social media as an important source of solace. A student based in London considered it a space of “comfort [when] seeing that we are all in this together – and that some people show solidarity and love through small acts.” A recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) article interviewing academics Holt-Lunstad, Silver and Gurwitch even emphasised the importance of solidarity in a time of loneliness and self-isolation. They claimed that we must accept a new normal, and we should take time to reach out to others in solidarity. In another paper by Holt-Lunstad and others, they also affirm solace as they state, “we stay home for each other, we are working toward a common goal.”
The sense of solidarity and community has been evident around the world. In Denmark, the community feel sparked through sing-alongs broadcasted on national TV, incentivising individuals around the country, from the farmer at home to the student in the city, to sing through these troubling times. In England, isolated individuals peeked out of their windows and front doors to applaud the health care workers. Italians found solace on their balconies, symphonising in patriotic song. And just this weekend, artist Martin Jensen live streamed a concert from Telia Parken in Copenhagen, performing for 800,000 people around the world.
Solidarity in a common trauma would not have been evident without social media platforms, reminding us that we are connected across walls, cities and even borders. Reminding us that we are not alone in this uncertain time.
Isolation has undoubtedly increased the everyday noise of social media. Excess time has allowed space for more time on socials, which in turn has sparked anxiety, fear and guilt – we can barely put the phone down. It may even have determined the crucial timing of our response to coronavirus. One thing is clear: we need it now more than ever. It is our “in-between news”, a space of creativity, social connections and solidarity. Social media may have in some ways worsened our experience of COVID-19, but if we are mindful of our usage, like any other addictive substance, it can be a space of great comfort.
Dane based in London. Full time student at SOAS, part time worker, every day dreamer and hustler. Aspiring journalist. In her element with hip-hop/rap, coffee, and a notebook.