The Other Kind of Social Distancing

We call it “Social Distancing” even if some experts, including the World Health Organization, have said that this is not the best way to call it because social contacts are vital to cope with the crisis. Northeastern University Political Science and Public Policy professor, Daniel Aldrich, has suggested the term “physical distancing” instead, but it was called Social Distancing first and this is the name that has stuck, even in non-English speaking countries. I religiously watch the German news every morning and they may be speaking German, but they will always stop and say “Social Distancing” in English.

About a month and a half ago, when the German Government announced that they would be closing down schools and businesses, I shared the following Reddit meme on my Facebook page:

And, yes, it’s true that I don’t find it particularly difficult to stay home and avoid interacting with people I don’t know. We introverts seem to enjoy the alone-time. I like my space and I like to share it with a very small group of people, so, no, I’m not dying to go out every weekend. My one-room apartment, however, does feel small from time to time. I’d like a living room and a bigger kitchen, but my balcony and my walks to the supermarket, to the bank, and to the post office make everything a bit easier. It also helps that I’m not self-quarantining alone.

And yet, after two weeks of self-quarantine, I started noticing something: I was getting very angry, very often, both at people that I know and at people I don’t know. It was two or three days before I could identify the problem: it was social media.

About four weeks ago, in my weekly newsletter, I spoke of 5 things that I was doing now that I had approximately one extra hour every day because I didn’t have a daily commute anymore. I was practicing and learning new skills, I was exercising a little more, decluttering my closet, and reading more. I recently lost my job, at least for a couple of weeks, so now I do more things (like focusing more on my thesis) and worry a little more. Thankfully, I am in a position where, even though it is a struggle to be out of a job, I will not go homeless or stop eating. My parents still send me some money and I share my expenses with my significant other (who still has to pay their own rent, so there’s that). Moreover, I look forward to being able to work again, hopefully, in a few weeks. So, in the meantime, the extra things that I do (my master’s thesis doesn’t count as “extra” because it’s a must), I do regularly (although not daily) because they help me feel good and put me in a good mood. In other words, they help be balance out all the bad stuff that is happening. However, these are things that I started doing once I put a time limit on my social media apps.

I’m not talking about #DisconnectingToConnect. I’m talking about the genuine damage that social media can do to people, I’m talking about the mental health issues and the anxiety that they can create.

Used correctly, social media are a fantastic tool. They help us stay connected to friends and family, they keep us informed, they allow us to engage in conversations and discussions, and they show us other perspectives and other experiences. But social media can be very toxic for a variety of reasons, and during this pandemic, I can clearly see two.

#1 Fake News

The problem of misinformation is probably the biggest one. Fake news spread fast through the web and get shared from one person to another, and they cause a lot of damage. Often, their goal is to sell miracle cures, but most of the time, they are published to generate interactions. We know how it works: a website needs lots of clicks and interactions to survive, and posting something outrageous, whether it’s fake or not, will always generate clicks.

Many of the fake news surrounding the coronavirus that I’ve seen pursue a political goal. They aim to create distrust towards certain politicians or institution, or to shift the blame toward someone else when the official response has been lacking. For those who hold a strong opinion towards a certain group or person, reading those kinds of news might make them fall into the good ol’ “confirmation bias”, which is the tendency to believe, interpret or favor information that confirms or strengthens beliefs that one already had, even when they’ve been disproven. And yes, we have all believed something fake at some point, but spreading misinformation during a pandemic, at best, leads to anger, at worst, leads to death.

#2 Accumulating Frustration

Maybe I read something fake and I was very upset about it. Maybe it was real and it made me feel scared. Maybe it wasn’t news, it was just a stupid post shared by someone I dislike and it made me angry. Maybe it’s not that, but I can’t stop obsessively watching the infection rates. Either way, it’s very frustrating and it makes me anxious.

The global situation is indeed alarming, and it definitely causes lots of anxiety and frustration. I know I’m worried. The economy is falling, social inequalities are more pronounced than ever, more people are getting sick, and governments don’t always respond the way they should. But social media connect us to all of these problems all at once, every hour of every day. We are getting tons of information and we are accumulating frustration. If we go on like this, we will all need lots of therapy, when this is over.

So… what can we do?

It will take a while to be able to really go out again. We still have a lot of hours at home, working under strange, definitely not ideal conditions ahead of us. That is, assuming we have a job. It’s all very stressful.

So, I want to propose another form of social distancing: Social media distancing.

Just as with physical distancing, which usually means going out for the basic needs, such as to get groceries, money, and maybe fresh air, social media should be used for the basics: get informed about the latest news, see what’s going on, say hi to the people we know and see their 85th bread picture, and then put some distance. Close the app. There are other things to see and to read, and there are more ways to communicate.

April is almost over and we still have a long way ahead of us, so let’s take it as easy as we can, putting some healthy distance between social media and us, and focusing on other things. Physical health is not the only important thing in this pandemic. We also need to take care of our mental health, and a good way to start is through “social media distancing.”

Protestant, PolSci MA student, reader, writer and coffee drinker

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