Four tips for keeping genuine connections online while socially distancing

A smiling woman in headphones works at her laptop

Most of us are long-accustomed to living parts of our work and social lives online. But with forced social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, our phones and laptops have suddenly become our offices, bars, gyms, and main entertainment venues—taking the place of nearly all the physical spaces where we normally interact in person.

How can we get the most out of the new normal of virtual interactions, and avoid sinking into feelings of isolation or being overwhelmed by information overload?

Juliana Schroeder | Photo Copyright Noah Berger 2019

Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder, who studies the psychological processes that underlie social interactions, recently published a paper with Alicea Lieberman, a PhD candidate at University of California, San Diego, that outlines four structural differences between online and offline communication. 

Schroeder shared what the latest research says about how these key differences influence our social and psychological lives—in everything from video chats to binging on news—and tips to make the most of online life.

Stay in voice contact

Nonverbal cues such as smiling, touching, or changing our tone of voice to express emotion are important contributors to how we connect with others. Research has shown that seeing someone’s smiling face can increase feelings of acceptance, feeling someone’s touch can enhance cooperation with them, and hearing someone’s voice humanizes them, even during conflict. Not only do these cues enhance intimacy during conversation, they’re also very important for preventing miscommunication. 

Audio cues are particularly important for two reasons: They make the person seem thoughtful and emotional—humanizing them—and they provide context, conveying complex intentions such as sarcasm and humor. We have some evidence that, at least when it comes to humor and sarcasm, auditory information is even more important than visual information. For this reason, thoughtful consideration should be given to choosing technologies that regain these important means of connection. 

When your goal is to connect or strengthen understanding, use phone calls and video chats rather than text-based platforms to implant nonverbal cues back into your conversations. Select equipment that gives you the clearest access to these nonverbal cues. For example, using headphones instead of speakers increases your ability to detect paralinguistic cues—such as pitch, volume, speech rate, and modulation—which can make you feel socially closer to the communicator.

Limit passive browsing and engage actively

Research has shown that passive browsing—on social media, in particular—is associated with feelings of loneliness and reduced well-being. Further, the anonymity that’s possible online can lead people to be disinhibited—allowing them to feel less accountable and increase behaviors that they may be less likely to display in person, such as rudeness and bullying. The research also indicates that using online platforms in a more active way, such as commenting and posting instead of just liking and browsing, enhances connectedness for at least two reasons. First, it gives others the opportunity to respond meaningfully to your posts, starting actual conversations. Second, it reduces “parasocial” relationships—one-sided interactions in which you extend energy and time following someone who has no awareness of your existence (leading to wasted emotional labor).

Being more active in your online engagement may help to safeguard against feelings of loneliness and increase your feelings of social connection.

Stop binging on news

We have an unending stream of news and information at our fingertips. While staying informed is certainly an important, it has its limits. Obsessing over the news during a particularly volatile time—a pandemic, for instance—can greatly increase our anxiety. To reduce anxiety, set rules for yourself about how often and how long you will read the news. 

Moreover, with the wide dissemination of information comes the likelihood that not all of that information is trustworthy. Fake stories have been shown to spread more quickly and widely than true ones. Pay attention to the source. Stick to news outlets that cite their primary sources, and actually read the source material. By setting consumption constraints and sticking to primary sources rather than straying down rabbit holes, you’ll be more efficient in consuming information online and reduce the chance of sinking into an unproductive state of anxiety.

Seek silver linings in new and deeper connections

The fourth difference between online and offline interactions presents a silver lining to our current predicament. Used effectively, online platforms provide more opportunities to create new social ties and strengthen existing ties. One study of Facebook interactions found that targeted messages from strong connections improved people’s well-being, while viewing friends’ audience-wide broadcasts did not; another study found that online socializing impairs sociability when it takes the place of deeper offline interactions, but it enhances sociability when deep offline engagement is otherwise difficult to attain. Now may be one one of those times.

Connecting with someone online often leads to new offline friendships, relationships, and even marriage. Now is a time to join support groups, find other people who share common interests, or simply connect meaningfully with people over the “new normal” we are all now adjusting to.