CHICAGO — How are you holding up? Many of us are tuning in to social media to ask how others are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecting on social media means different things to different people, so how can we strike the right balance of sharing and connection? Bree McEwan, an associate professor in DePaul University’s College of Communication, studies the intersection between interpersonal communication and communication technology. She’s also working from home with three children while preparing to teach online this spring quarter. In this Q&A, she offers some assurance and tips for communicating effectively online, and in person with those who need us most.
Q: What are your tips for communicating effectively with personal networks on social media during this pandemic?
A: People should consider how they manage and maintain weak versus strong ties. Social network site feeds are great for keeping track of weak ties, but if you want to feel more closely connected to others you might consider creating smaller closed Facebook groups or WhatsApp message feeds. Those type of online spaces might help you have stronger ties to reach out to for social support or just generally feel connected to others who care about you.
Keep in mind what your goals are for communication. Do you want to understand what is going on in the broader world? Head to Twitter. Want to keep in touch with your overall network? Visit the Facebook Newsfeed. Need cute pictures of your friends, their pets and kids or the concoction they put together for dinner last night? Instagram!
Q: If I’ve been using social media less lately, is this the time to tune in?
A: Social media can feel overwhelming at times. Consider why you wanted to stay away in the first place. Is it because you were overwhelmed with information? To get away from political conflict? If those are the reasons, then perhaps consider other channels. A group text or message app with a smaller group might help you feel connected without feeling overwhelmed.
However, if you quit social media because you bought into media stories that it’s harmful, come back, join your friends via technology. Social technologies are going to help us feel connected and supported until we can have face-to-face interaction again. Research that suggested social media is somehow harmful are outdated or based on minor correlations. Orben and Przybylski recently found that social media and wellbeing are correlated at about the same rate as wellbeing and eating potatoes. During a pandemic, I think we can all feel okay about having both our comfort foods and our Instagram feeds.
If you moved away from social media because you don’t love hearing from everyone you’re connected to, check back in. I just found myself nodding in agreement with a connection who normally agitates me. You don’t have to give up all of social media, just choose who you follow. That mute button can come in handy.
Q: For those who are working from home, what should we keep in mind about communicating with coworkers via the phone and web? How can we stay connected?
A: One aspect that will be important is to respect people’s time and space. Colleagues are dealing with vastly different home situations at the moment. For example, I’m trying to figure out e-learning for three kids and whether we should quarantine my student nurse husband away from the rest of us, (in which case I lose my home office and I’m solo-parenting). Be generous about the appearance of a nursing infant or inquisitive elementary kid showing up on the video conference. Consider low bandwidth channels when possible. I can be on multiple text threads, make dinner, and direct at-home P.E. class all at the same time. On a Zoom or phone conference, all my attention is pulled into one spot.
Q: How can communication tools help us help those who are really in need during this crisis, like the elderly and those with fewer resources?
A: Patience, generosity and grace. The elderly are far less likely to use social media and far more likely to be in the 10% of Americans who do not use social media at all, according to Pew Research Center. The news reports are quite scary (for good reason). Older Americans are far more likely to primarily use the phone for social connection. Others might use email but not a wide array of channels. It is incumbent upon those more comfortable with multiple channels to reach out to those who are less comfortable. In other words, call your grandma. Post a note on an elderly neighbors’ door with your phone number. The elderly are at the most risk of social isolation during this crisis.
Q: There seems to be a bit of competition on social media (especially among parents) to show who’s either keeping their kids busy in the most creative ways, or who’s got the most gourmet recipe going in their slow cooker. Meanwhile, a lot of people are likely struggling with their mental health while self-isolating. How do we strike a balance between showing the positive side of things, but acknowledging that this is tough for everyone?
A: Remember that there is a positivity bias on social media. People are used to showing what Zhao, Grasmuck, and Martin called our most-hoped-for-possible self. Everyone has different stressors and different focuses right now. Your mom friend made a beautiful color chart for e-learning? That’s what’s keeping her together – your reality can be different. Your friend posted a beautiful home-cooked meal from scratch and you ordered pizza? Well, good for you for supporting local businesses! Remember that might have been your friend’s only accomplishment for the day. Or maybe they want to share their recipe to help out others. This is a crisis, it is okay to celebrate each other’s small achievements while recognizing that it is tough to hold it all together.