17 Mar 2020

Social isolation during a pandemic Challenges and opportunities during COVID-19 lockdown

There are significant barriers to the effective adoption of technology to alleviate social isolation resulting from COVID-19 ‘social distancing’[1], particularly among those people who were already socially isolated.

The barriers most cited in the literature on the use of technology to remedy social isolation are (i) lack of support and training to use technology, (ii) lack of financial resources to obtain devices and connectivity, and (iii) physical disabilities.

Most people are woefully ill-equipped to engage in meaningful social connection using digital technologies

Unfortunately, there are more barriers that are often not discussed. Most people are woefully ill-equipped to engage in meaningful social connection using digital technologies. Most people lack the emotional intelligence and communication skills required to make online social connection meaningful, and there are various social norms that inhibit the frequency and effectiveness of online interactions.

Communication technologies create some degree of social ‘presence’[2] based on the richness of interpersonal information being transmitted and interpreted. Video can communicate rich verbal and non-verbal information so is commonly considered the closest to in-person communication, but most people still feel it lacks various intangible qualities.

Other technologies can be ranked on a continuum of social presence based on what interpersonal information is missing, such as eye contact, facial expressions, body language and other visual cues, vocal qualities, and the immediacy of responses[3]. While live video is best, email and other non-immediate text-based messaging is generally considered to have the least social presence.

For most people, regardless of the degree of social presence the technology creates, online communication is missing something that in-person interaction provides. So, for it to be more effective, we need to compensate for this deficiency by communicating these missed signals more explicitly. For example, if the technology does not allow you to look caringly into the other persons eyes with understanding and empathy then you would need to find a way to communicate this; and often this can only be done verbally.

this form of verbal communication is often normatively inappropriate

However, we are poorly equipped to do this. Many people lack the vocabulary and emotional intelligence to put their feelings accurately into words, and this form of verbal communication is often normatively inappropriate – it can make people feel uncomfortable. We know how to respond to the empathetic look, but many feel uncomfortable when the same sentiment is expressed verbally.

This may be partly because verbal expression of sentiments that are normally non-verbal can be easily misunderstood as insincere. This may be because the verbal expression, regardless of the elegance of the words used, is generally a poor substitute for the non-verbal equivalent. We are unskilled at crafting the right words and we are not used to hearing them.

The less social presence the technology supports, the more non-verbal communication needs to be expressed verbally if it is to be an effective remedy for social isolation.

Another barrier to people doing this is that the majority of our non-verbal communication is subconscious, so we are often not aware we are doing it, so don’t have the opportunity to adjust to the limitations of the technology and express it verbally. This can be mitigated to an extent by understanding the limitations of the communication medium and making a deliberate effort to compensate for its deficiencies.

Humans may develop these competencies over time as online interaction becomes more common and widespread. However, it is something that takes time and lots of practice. We will need to develop the ability to switch between different communication mediums as effortlessly as we switch communication styles between interacting with our children, our friends in a bar, and our clients at work. Most people communicate very differently in these different situations and we need to develop the ability to adapt to different mediums even when communicating with the same people.

Many people may feel socially isolated but not want to engage in online social interaction due to uncertainties about what is and isn’t socially acceptable. For example, is it appropriate to connect with your boss on social media; is it ok to video call a friend without organising a time in advance; do you need to introduce yourself when you enter a group video call; and a myriad of other uncertainties.

social norms and underlying beliefs and values may systematically discourage meaningful digital communication

It’s not just uncertainty that may create a barrier to engaging in online social interaction. It seems in many cultures there are social norms and underlying beliefs and values that may systematically discourage meaningful digital communication. Many people have beliefs or values, or believe other people have beliefs and values, that may inhibit the initiation of interaction. For example, being too busy, tired, disinterested, or self-focused, or valuing privacy, relaxation, or social comfort. Fear of rejection seems to be a common obstacle. Many of these seem to relate to self-confidence and concepts of the self, relative to others. For many people, it’s just easier to not connect and turn to the instant gratification of on-demand and immersive digital entertainment.

In many cases the social norms associated with using communication technologies are weakly developed or unevenly shared among all members of a community. Norms associated with when and how to use these technologies and what behaviours are acceptable and appropriate are not well established. There are limitations to the communication of normative standards, and part of the problem is the lack of social sanctioning mechanisms. Norms are created and reinforced by social sanctions, but sanctioning mechanisms are often absent in ways that often parallel the degree of social presence.

sanctioning mechanisms are often absent or ineffective

Social sanctions tend to be lacking; both the subtle forms that can guide interaction in real time, as well as the more severe sanctions because people can simply ‘disconnect’. When someone acts extremely inappropriately, for example offensive, bullying or abusive behaviour, they can simply disconnect to avoid sanctions. Also, when someone acting inappropriately does remain connected, many of the more severe forms of sanctioning are not possible so are not a deterrent. I’m not advocating any form of violence, but the fact that these sanctions are not possible in online interaction means they cannot motivate compliance with social norms. Keyboard warriors can do whatever they want with impunity.

COVID-19 will change the way we interact and the way we go about our social and professional lives

A pandemic changes society. COVID-19 will change the way we interact and the way we go about our social and professional lives. It may be just the catalyst to force us to learn how to communicate more effectively using a variety of different communication technologies. It may accelerate the development of social norms and we may find novel solutions to the problem of ineffective social sanctions that create stability and order to our interaction and exchange.

The technology already exists to facilitate remote social interaction. However, I believe it is underutilised and generally ineffective at meaningfully reducing social isolation, especially those who are worst affected by social isolation. We could hold community gatherings using existing live video technologies, we could run support and interest group meetings, we could reconnect with old friends, and make new friends in shared communities of interest, values, or geography. We could connect with people using live video the way we used to make phone calls. The technology is available now, the problem is most people don’t know how – technically, normatively, and socially – to use it effectively.

The learning curve is steep and there are deeply embedded social norms that cannot be easily change quickly without significant upheaval.

We are woefully unprepared to rapidly move to effective online interaction that is capable of meaningfully reducing social isolation when in-person interaction is not possible. There are significant incongruences between face to face interaction and interaction using technologies with less social presence. The methods and patterns for one are not directly applicable to others and one must be capable of adjusting to the differing needs. The learning curve is steep and there are deeply embedded social norms that cannot be easily change quickly without significant upheaval. Perhaps COVID-19 will provide the impetus for change, and sufficient motivation to learn the skills to make it happen.

  1. Social distancing should really be termed physical distancing since we want to avoid proximity but not reduce solidarity, ^
  2. Social Presence refers to the degree to which one perceives the presence of participants in the communication and how well they convey intimacy and warmth. ^
  3. Social presence is primarily composed of intimacy, immediacy, non-verbal communication, and efficiency. ^

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