With most of the country under some form of a shelter-in-place order due to the effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, life looks different. The way children learn, the way businesses conduct business, and the way Saturday Night Live airs its opening looks different. Even the way people stay connected is different now that we can’t meet face-to-face.
People are more isolated than they’ve ever been, and for that reason, they’re finding more creative ways to combat missing that face-to-face connection than they ever have. Don Forsyth, a psychologist at the University of Richmond, told USA Today that, “Social loneliness can be countered by reaching out to other people through any (safe) means possible: even writing a letter or email to an old friend will undo some of the negative effects of prolonged isolation.”
FaceTime is the tried and true favorite when it comes to connecting face-to-face without actually being face-to-face. Even before the pandemic, my kids used FaceTime to chat with friends, cousins, and grandparents. But since the pandemic, FaceTime is an unofficial part of the day. The popular video chat feature on iPhones that requires little more than a Wi-Fi connection and a knowledge of where to place your thumb—ideally not over the camera—has always connected people who are separated, whether by a city block or an ocean. In the face of shelter-in-place orders, grandparents are using FaceTime to get some quality time with grandchildren, who they haven’t seen in weeks. They’re using the iPhone feature to chat, but they’ve also found other uses for the app. From playing chess to reading bedtime stories, grandparents are connecting with grandchildren in ways that they never thought they’d have to. But it’s not just grandparents. Mothers and daughters who live apart are coming together over FaceTime to cook, and kids like mine are meeting their newborn cousins for the first time over FaceTime.
For many, Zoom meetings have not only taken the place of meetings around a conference room table, but have also become a space for trainers to teach their fitness clients and families to get together for socially-distanced Seders and Easter dinners. There have been Zoom birthday parties, Zoom church services, and even, Zoom weddings. In my house, we’re all using Zoom. I’m using Zoom for everything from teaching Pilates to clients who are quarantined miles away to connecting with friends for a virtual happy hour. My children are using Zoom for speech therapy and to connect with camp friends from around the country. But Zoom isn’t without its drawbacks. As use was ramping up, the popular meeting app was targeted by hackers, and faced criticism for failing to secure users’ privacy. The company remedied those concerns and, for the moment at least, we’re all Zoomers—unless you’re Disney, in which case you use BlueJeans.
A video chat app similar to Zoom, Google Hangouts is also seeing usage skyrocket. Citing a desire to help employers, educators, and students during the pandemic, Google recently announced that it would make its premium “Hangouts Meet” features free until September 30. This is one app we haven’t figured out in my household yet, but Google is reporting that usage of the app is 25 percent higher than it was in January. Which means with time, as shelter-in-place orders stretch on, I have no doubt we’ll find ourselves in a Hangout.
I first heard about the app Houseparty a few years ago from my not-quite-tween daughter, when she begged for me to download the app onto her iPad because everybody had it. Cut to 2020, and it seems like everybody does have it. A friend in London encouraged me to download the video chat app, which allows users to chat and play games with multiple friends at one time. She was using the app to connect with her mother in upstate New York. Another friend also told me about the app after he’d made a night of Houseparty with old college buddies and played games until their phone batteries dropped into that dreaded “low battery” range.
Skype, What’s App, and Facebook Messenger (including Facebook Messenger Kids) have all seen a spike in usage, as have video games, many of which offer screen sharing and a way to virtually engage with other people. More than 20 million users were active on Steam, the largest video game distribution service for PC gaming, on March 15—that’s an all time record. Kids and adults are using games, like Fortnite, to keep busy, but also to chat with their friends and find a little connection when school can’t be in session.
Not to be outdone, old-fashioned phone calls are making a comeback — even for people like me, who before the pandemic returned a phone call by text message and wondered aloud often why people hadn’t learned to stop leaving voicemails. Now, as soon as the phone rings, I’m grabbing it to answer, and enjoying hearing a voice. And I’m not alone. While Internet traffic has risen around 20 to 25 percent, the number of Wi-Fi-based calls has nearly doubled. Verizon reported that it’s handling about 800 million wireless calls a week. To put that in perspective, it’s more than double the number of calls made on Mother’s Day, an unsurprisingly high call volume day. And not only are people calling more, but they’re talking for longer. The length of the calls was up 33 percent from an average pre-pandemic day.
Social distancing is keeping us apart and forcing us to find new ways to connect. But if there’s anything this pandemic has proven with certainty it’s that humans crave quality connection. And pandemic or not, we will find a way. Because that’s the truth at the core of the human spirit.
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