The stark loneliness of digital togetherness

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft. Members of a local Quaker community, the couple had planned a 100-person April ceremony that honored “what’s present and alive.” They’d pictured a reception full of hugs, singing, and dancing. When the couple tied the knot in their backyard in Durham, North Carolina, last month, just three guests were in attendance, while a select group of family and close friends watched online. “It would have felt like a show to me,” Dawes says, adding an impersonal layer to a moment that was meant to be warm and joyous. Deciding whether to use video platforms such as Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime to re-create in-person experiences has become a new facet of life under global social distancing rules. “[They] help us understand and share emotions beyond just the words,” says DouglasNemecek, the senior medical director for behavioral health at Cigna, which for the past few years has conducted an annual nationwide survey on loneliness. And while keeping social connections alive through Zoom happy hours and Skype birthdayparties can help, they can’t fully substitute for the comfort we take in the physical presence of others, says James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. By virtue of living in New York City, she had access to continual social interactions even when moving through the urban crush alone. But since New York went into lockdown inMarch, she’s begun to feel a creeping sense of social isolation despite — and sometimes because of — a schedule packed with video calls. “We’re playing, but it’s a continuous reminder — hey, we aren’t going to be able to do this in person for a very long time.” Often, the experience of seeing friends and family over Zoom both relieves the ache we feel for the presence of others and sharpens it. Gallery: 7 communication tips to keep your relationship alive during quarantine (Business Insider) Video call fatigue is well-documented. Patty Brahe, 46, a substitute teacher sheltering in place with her husband and two kids in Beach Haven, New Jersey, regularly FaceTimes with her parents but says, “It’s awkward. “I’m someone who relies heavily on facial cues and body language, so it’s hard to look at a grid of multiple people and try to decode their feelings or reactions,” says Marinova. You are just sitting there kind of paralyzed with anxiety.”Meanwhile, the person who’s frozen — should their wifi ever kick in again — is unceremoniously deposited back into a conversation that has already moved on without them. The disconnect is subtle but continuous, an extra step inthe communication process that, in the beginning, doesn’t feel so taxing. But as the video calls pile up, the gulf between the ease of face-to-face conversation and the more stiltedprocessof interpreting facial cues and body language through a screen intensifies. “You don’t wanttobe the one who interrupts.” Before the pandemic, Isaiah Headen, 36, a filmmaker and photographer in Washington, DC, would meet a group of close friends at a bar every few weeks. “We’re all making time for it, but everyone is distracted while being together.” The sessions are a good way to catch up, but he says he misses the physical camaraderie thatcomes with sharing a space and the friendly ritual of buying rounds of drinks. Some of these spaces, shared with a manager, perhaps, or an in-law, are contained to specific contexts, in which silence is a discomfort to be papered over with logistics or small talk. Others are deeper and more expansive, giving us room to be nuanced, multifaceted versions of ourselves.“There are people you can be close to without having to say anything,” Petriglieri says. “We are each other’s habitat,” says Coan, whose lab at the University of Virginia studies the neural mechanisms in the brain that link social relationships to health and well-being. In a series of experiments conducted over the past 16 years, Coan put participants under threat of mild electric shock, either alone or while holding the hand of someone they knew and trusted. Typically, when we’re under stress, blood, and the glucose and oxygen within, flows to the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain associated with threat vigilance and emotionregulation. Brahe longs to hug friends and family but also finds herself returning to an afternoon in New York City, shortly before lockdown, in which the sky suddenly opened. Brahe misses these moments, and, by extension, themundaneactivities such as subway rides and errands that pushed her against a rush of other people. Although the state is unpleasant, it’s a natural “pinch-point of experience,” says Fay Bound Alberti, a historian and the author of A Biography ofLoneliness. Over time, loneliness creates a self-reinforcing loop that causes us to see rejection and insult everywhere, making connection even more difficult. Physically, chronic loneliness leads to a process called weathering, in which resources that power the immune system are diverted to the bloodstream and large muscles in order to prepare for danger. While video calls help us stay connected, they’re missing many of the nonverbal components and cues that form the basis of our most intimate relationships. There isn’t data yet on how the pandemic has affected loneliness levels on a broad scale, but Cigna’s Nemecek believes social distancing will have an impact long after the acute medical crisis has passed. We take for granted other people’s lived experiences.” While any technology substituting for in-person connection will inevitably fall short, gratitude for what we do have and can control goes a long way. For Dawes and his husband, havingtheir close friends and family at their wedding was the most important thing — even if it was over Zoom.