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Connecting through the screen during COVID-19

Students, campus organizations adapt community bonding to virtual space; researchers offer input on digital relationships

The college experience is an innately social one, drawing students, faculty and all community members to interact together. Now, with health and safety concerns at the forefront, physically communing on campus and forming relationships in person have been restricted. Social life has transitioned online, creating new experiences for everyone involved. 

Student-led groups create virtual events, build community

Campus life encompassing organizations including clubs, community centers and program houses is a staple of the college experience and led largely by students themselves. 

Maisy Meyer ’22, a student leader of the Chemistry Departmental Undergraduate Group, said that “virtual events are, in some ways, even better than the events that we could have done in person.” 

By promoting social events to first-year students seeking an introduction to the chemistry department and maintaining a full event calendar, the DUG utilized the virtual semester to create a sense of community. “We’ve been able to come together as a department and become more accessible to underclassmen,” Meyer said. 

The ChemDUG, normally a relatively small group due to a low number of chemistry concentrators, has seen its highest turnout this semester. The group hosted a panel with its leaders over Zoom in August that brought together over 200 attendees.

Connecting with other students virtually has been less uncomfortable than expected. “People are so starved for social interaction that honestly everyone is dropping all of their pretenses,” Meyer added. 

Even if given the opportunity to hold some events in person, the DUG plans to continue hosting popular events, like screenings of old episodes of “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” with a virtual component for remote students. 

For the University’s Black Student Union, keeping members engaged has taken the form of virtual mixers and collaborations with other affinity organizations like the Brown Center for Students of Color. 

To create a friendly atmosphere, the group has incorporated Kahoot! games and played background music as attendees joined, said Christina Crockett ’23 and Faith Hardy ’23, BSU co-event coordinators. 

Worried about Zoom fatigue — a drained mental state resulting from constant video calls — they gathered members’ input on what they’d like to see from events. “It’s easier to get engagement when you’re actually plugged into what the members want,” Hardy said. 

They hope to continue virtual events targeted toward first-years given their success, as well as use livestreams on social media, Crockett and Hardy said. For example, BSU hosted a livestream over Instagram for A Day on College Hill, which had over 100 viewers.

“This period has really been a strain for me,” Hardy said. She prefers to socialize in person rather than over text and other online channels. Crockett feels more accustomed to socializing online as an active member of large group chats. Both have become avid users of Netflix Party and online games like Among Us as entertaining ways to spend time with friends online.

First-years meet other classmates from home

Newly admitted students face an unprecedented first semester. Though first-years have the option to take one fall course, they remain at home, unable to experience a traditional introduction to college life on campus “half-students,” as Surya Khatri ’24 described.

Khatri, who is living in Baltimore, is a member of a GroupMe chat for the class of 2024 with over a thousand members. Students in the chat have organized weekly game nights as well as socially distanced meet-ups, he said.

Amiri Nash ’24 has also connected with classmates through this GroupMe chat and has exchanged letters with a University student pen pal. 

Being in isolation has made Nash more introverted and less inclined to go out, he said. When meeting up with friends in person, “there’s other factors that I have to think about now,” such as social distancing and whether others are wearing masks, which has made him more anxious, he added.

The role of social media has also changed for him. Before the pandemic, “it was just a way to connect with people that you didn’t necessarily see, but now I don’t see anyone. My existence is performed through a digital realm of social media, rather than in real life,” Nash said. 

Both first-year students share a desire to experience social life on campus when it becomes possible, stressing that there is no comparison to meeting their classmates in person. 

Researchers discuss effects on social behavior

The suspension of physical social interactions raises questions of how people’s social behavior and perceptions of themselves have changed.

The pandemic “changes everything. Human beings need to be in face-to-face contact. It’s how we affirm our connections most solidly,” said Gregory Elliott, professor of sociology. 

Social media, presently the main alternative, leads to superficial relationships and is a threat to community building, Elliott said. Intimate relationships involve conflict, and, because of easy options online like blocking those you disagree with, social media fails to create deeply meaningful relationships. 

If people sparsely interact, we receive limited information in understanding who we are, Elliott said, referencing a social phenomenon called reflected appraisals, where people learn about themselves through others’ reactions to them.

Social media and other virtual communication channels are also largely an act of “self-presentation,” a highly selective version of oneself that is shown to others, according to Elliott. For instance, virtual backgrounds on Zoom can mask a messy room, or a bookshelf positioned in the backdrop serves to make the person appear well-read. 

Liesel Sharabi, assistant professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, studies interpersonal relationships with a focus on dating apps. Based on research showing that more modes of communication are added as relationships progress, maintaining established relationships online should theoretically be easier than forming new ones.

“You can still maintain quite intimate relationships online,” Sharabi said. Some people might feel more comfortable interacting and opening up online than in person. She has noticed this in her own experiences teaching over Zoom, where some students prefer to actively participate using the chat feature. 

But Oriel FeldmanHall, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, said that humans rely on visual cues for social interactions to gauge the emotions of the other person. 

Limited visual cues resulting from virtual communication affect the fabric of collaboration, FeldmanHall said. Working completely virtually “protracts the experience of what it’s like to work with someone, (meaning you figure) out whether they’re a good person to work with or not on a much longer time scale.”

Friendships and romantic relationships also often involve physical signs of affection, FeldmanHall said. Especially for those living alone, they are “missing out on a huge component of what it means to be a human being, which is to socially engage with people in a deep way.”

From a media perspective, a lot of our lives have already been digitalized, and the pandemic has merely foregrounded our digital lives as our physical lives have been curtailed, said Jinying Li, assistant professor of modern culture and media. 

The boundary between the virtual and the physical is unclear, Li said. The pandemic has not changed our relationship with media, but rather, is causing us to better understand how digital interactions are already integrated into our lives. 

While researchers note some shortcomings to digital interactions, they acknowledge some positives. Virtual communication is “better than nothing, but don’t ever let it be good enough,” Elliott said.


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