The Digital World Can Support Our Need for Social Interaction

The Digital World Can Support Our Need for Social Interaction During COVID-19

31 Mar 2020

Dr. Kareem Darwish, a principal scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University, discusses ways of remaining upbeat despite social distancing.

The Digital World Can Support Our Need for Social Interaction During COVID-19

With the evolving coronavirus (COVID-19) situation forcing most of us to work remotely, the level of social interaction we are used to has inevitably dropped, and that can leave many, particularly those who are single, feeling isolated.  

This can lead to a variety of psychological ailments including depression and mental decay, so it is important to utilize the options we have available in the absence of face-to-face interactions.

We all need multiple positive human interactions every day and there are several digital means of socialization that may partially satisfy the social needs of individuals.  

These include chats, audio/video calls, social media, online games, watch parties, and collaborative learning. However, not all digital means are created equal and, depending on how we use them, they can be helpful or in fact harmful.

One highly effective form of interaction are chats, preferably video chats where you are looking at the camera to interact with your colleagues and friends, on a daily basis. Although it may seem a little awkward at first, by scheduling such chats they can soon become part of our daily habit – a practice we may soon start looking forward to. 

When engaging in such chats, though, it is important to focus on the positive aspects of our lives, such as our family and work. It is easy to slip into discussing the COVID-19 situation and its implications on our lives. Indeed, it is inevitable that we feel inclined to discuss it, but we should try to resist the temptation. 

Another digital option that can really help us during the current situation is engaging in joint activities with others. Such activities may include having a reading group; attending online classes together; agreeing to memorize parts of the Holy Qur’an and then reciting it to each other; having lunch virtually with others over video calls; watching a program at the same time while chatting about it via text; and playing either collaborative or adversarial online games with friends, family, or colleagues. 

This list is by no means complete, and there are many other possible digital socialization tools at our disposal. Such interactions should become part of our daily routine to ensure we still receive frequent doses of positive social interactions at a time when the world is social distancing.

Some social media platforms can, however, provide negative socialization that could lead to depression and an even greater feeling of isolation. Most notable of these platforms are asymmetric ones. Although these platforms enable you to hear from people you know, several of their properties can make them potentially harmful. First, due to their asymmetric nature, back and forth interactions are inherently limited. There may be a facility to comment or reply, but they generally feel impersonal and do not elevate to the level of dialogue. For these reasons, we should, therefore, avoid spending too much time on social media platforms.

Secondly, much of what is currently being shared on such social media platforms is related to news about COVID-19 and is mostly negative. One of the human cognitive biases is so-called availability bias, where things that we see more often occupy a large part of our consciousness compared to things we encounter less frequently.

Thus, given the preponderance of negative information on such platforms, negativity would be front and center in our minds – possibly leading to a greater feeling of sadness and potentially depression. If we insist on using social media platforms, we can ask our friends to post at least one positive message daily, or we can engage in joint activities such as watch parties, where we can watch a live or recorded video simultaneously with our friends.

The bottom line, given the forced limitations on face-to-face interaction, is that some digital socialization tools can be invaluable in partially satisfying our need for positive daily social interactions, but others should be limited or even avoided if we are to remain positive during these testing times. 

Dr. Kareem Darwish is a principal scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

This article is submitted on behalf of the author by the HBKU Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the University’s official stance.