As more employers and schools encourage people to stay home, people across the country find themselves videochatting more than they usually might: going to meetings on Zoom, catching up with clients on Skype, FaceTiming with therapists, even hosting virtual bar mitzvahs. Warnings about the increased risk of exposure during travel present a special predicament for people like Wright who live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families and friends. Many families today are like their own little diasporas, scattered across states, countries, and continents in search of better education and career opportunities. The system works because loved ones remain, for the most part, reachable, and you could hop on a bus or train or plane to see them—without, until recently, the threat of becoming exposed to a new infectious illness, for which no vaccine exists.
Along with recommendations against air travel, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people practice “social distancing” in everyday life, an effort to minimize close physical contact between people to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. Experts now advise that not only should you avoid crowded public places and stay six to 10 feet away from other people, you should also think carefully about dining out, going to the gym, and attending social gatherings. In other words, it would behoove Americans, especially in areas where the virus has been spreading, to spend as much time at home as possible. And with less face time, there’s no better time for FaceTime.
Read: The dos and don’ts of ‘social distancing’
“For many people, it’s what they do anyway,” says Anna Lomanowska, a psychology professor and the director of the Digital Well-Being Lab, where she studies interpersonal contact in virtual settings. “So it feels like, in a sense, we’re pretty prepared for this.”
For the siblings Emily and Evan Seegmiller, both in their 20s, FaceTiming with their parents is a weekly habit. Evan is a social-media coordinator in Wisconsin, Emily is in graduate school in Indiana, and their parents live in their hometown in Illinois. They’re finding a new appreciation for the tech, especially because their plans for future visits are now up in the air. “We are a very close family, so FaceTime is a go-to no matter what, but with this pandemic it makes it much more important,” Emily told me over Twitter DM. The siblings were hoping to join their mother on a trip to visit their grandparents in Arizona at the end of the month, but during their last FaceTime session, they decided they should cancel. Their grandparents are in their 70s, and coronavirus infection is more dangerous to the elderly.
But social isolation, too, can be especially unhealthy for older adults. While public-health experts agree that social distancing is the most effective way to keep people healthy when vaccines and tests are lacking, staying away from loved ones can be dangerous in its own way. That’s especially true for at-risk groups who may face lengthy quarantines, self-imposed or otherwise, says Alan Teo, a physician who teaches at Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Medicine. Research has shown links between social isolation and health problems, including depression, at every stage of life. In a 2018 study, Teo found that the use of videochatting helped reduce the risk of depression in people aged 60 and older, a group that is more likely to be socially isolated than younger people. Videochatting was more effective than email, social media, and instant messaging.