UNLV communication studies professor Natalie Pennington offers tips to preserve your mental health while protecting your physical health.

 UNLV -- With calls from elected and health officials to self-isolate to prevent the spread of coronavirus, more and more people are turning to social media as their primary means of entertainment and connection with friends and the outside world.

But can too much social media while social distancing take a toll on your mental and even physical health?

We checked in with Natalie Pennington -- a UNLV communication studies professor who researches the benefits and harms of social media -- to get her take on the best ways to make your online experience work for you. Here’s what she had to say:

Think Physical Distance Not Social Distance

Increasingly cities, states, and entire countries are putting in place measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. During this time, individuals may find themselves isolated from their friends and family. Remembering the many ways we can use technology, and best practices, can help ensure that while we have to be physically distant from our loved ones, we don’t have to be socially distant from them.

Balance Social Media Use

Social media can be fantastic for connecting with your social network, but keep in mind that if you are feeling lonely or anxious that those feelings can be perpetuated by logging online. In my own interviews with people who have quit social media, mental health was a big reason that participants stepped away. For those who aren’t ready to quit, research has shown that just passively reading social media is insufficient to feel connected to others; so, if you are logging on, post and comment to connect with your network. Besides social media, there are a lot of ways to connect: phone calls, texting, video chat, and emails are all great options for staying socially connected with your network.

Practice Directed Communication

In line with stepping back from social media, if you can, take the time to reach out to call, text, or email with someone you care about each day. This one-to-one communication can do wonders for your overall health and well-being. Consider re-connecting with someone you haven’t talked with in a while and checking in on friends or loved ones who may be alone and could use the extra talk more so than someone who has a spouse or other family at home with them. People want to feel connected, and even just a text to say hello can go a long way.

Inject Humor

To help slow the spread of the virus, there has been an influx of social media users using their own brand of viral messages to get the word out about prevention. They include singing songs to encourage following best practices by washing your hands for 20 seconds, images and stories of kids and pets as new ‘coworkers’, and images from nurses and doctors that have a similar “stay home for us” message. The first two point to a general need for people to find a bright side during these difficult times. If we can instill humor to break up the tension, it can help us get through the day to day.

Don’t Give Up on That New Relationship 

If you were just getting started with a new romantic relationship, don’t give up on it! Plenty of people have had success with online dating for over a decade now, and part of that is knowing the benefits and opportunities afforded by technology. Research shows that we can build relationships online that are just as strong as the ones we would form face-to-face, so consider having ‘virtual dates’ through video chat or sending emails to continue the courtship. If you’re looking for conversation starters, check out the 36 questions to fall in love to give you something to talk about!

Get Creative

Several companies are offering ways to connect with your loved ones—use Netflix Party to watch your favorite show or movie with friends. If you own any of the JackBox party packs, you can also host virtual game nights using Steam, Twitch, or YouTube. Consider joining Reddit to connect with people in your community or around interests or hobbies you have. Most important, think about how to take advantage of technology to maintain the things you would have done anyway. Wishing you could have a happy hour with your friends? Participate in a Google Hangout and cheers from the safety of your own home.