Social Distancing Could Change Our Relationship With FaceTime

As public-health experts urge Americans to stay away from one another, video tech seems poised to take on a new cultural significance.

A foam finger with the FaceTime logo
Ace03 / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Karen Wright loves to sing to her three-month-old grandson, August. She croons Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”: “Day-o, day-o, daylight come and me wan’ go home.” Sometimes she throws in a little Bob Marley, and dances along. Wright loves seeing August’s eyes light up at the sound of her voice.

Wright does this from more than 1,000 miles away. She lives in Tallahassee, and her grandson is in Toronto. Wright’s daughter was supposed to visit her mom in Florida in early April so that August could finally meet his grandma. But the family has decided that they shouldn’t travel, because of the coronavirus outbreak, which continues to spread quickly across the United States and around the world. More than 70 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in Florida so far, and Wright, a certified nursing assistant who works with elderly patients, knows well the precautions people must take to stem the spread of the disease.

So for now, Wright and her family spend time together through their phones on Duo, the Google videochatting app. It’s the next best thing.

“I cannot be that selfish grandma—I really want to see my grandson!” Wright told me this week. “Why jeopardize everything? You just gotta wait it out and see what happens, and pray and hope for the best.”

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.

“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.

“That’s something that’s been missing in the conversation here, is what are the dangers of missing out on social contact and connection with other people?” Teo says. “It’s hard for me to think of a downside to hand-washing. I can deal with dry, chapped hands. But it is very easy for me to conjure consequences of social distancing that we’re not going to like, especially if we think about having to do that over an extended period of time.”

Some facilities that support senior citizens are taking action to mitigate the harmful consequences of isolation. Aegis Living, which runs 32 senior communities in Washington State, California, and Nevada, has started limiting visitors and “in some cases enacting community-wide isolation,” so staff has started encouraging its residents to spend time with their families virtually. “Finding new ways to connect families regularly is more important than ever,” Nandi Butcher, a spokesperson for Aegis Living, told me. “We are helping our residents connect with loved ones via FaceTime, Skype, and phone calls and have gotten great response so far.”

Most children don’t need to be introduced to the idea of videochatting, but the role it plays in their life could change if they stop socializing in class. María Helena Carey, a photographer and substitute teacher in Washington, D.C., says her 11-year-old son, Brandon, already FaceTimes with his friends on his iPod, even after they’ve spent the day together at school. She’s especially grateful for his love of videochatting now that the local government has decided to close schools for two weeks starting on Monday. Because Brandon will be forced to stay home, he’ll probably use videochat even more to keep in touch, even about the latest developments on the outbreak. It was the first thing Brandon did after Carey told him about a confirmed case in the nation’s capital last weekend (there are now 10).

“I wasn’t even done reading all the stuff from the mayor’s press conference when all of a sudden, I see him just firing up his iPod, doing a three-way chat with his friends—‘Did you hear?’” she told me. Her son wanted to see his friends’ reactions.

Of course, videochat is not a perfect substitute for real face-to-face interaction. Virtual quality time lacks many of the benefits of physical proximity and human touch. “Our nonverbal behavior or body language is not being transmitted as easily,” says Lomanowska, the psychology professor. Spending time together over Skype is unlikely to feel as satisfying as being in the same room. But it’s better than nothing.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Gabrielle Autry didn’t FaceTime with her parents very often, maybe once a month or less. But a lot changed after Autry and her partner spent two months under quarantine this year, in Zhejiang, in eastern China, where she is in graduate school. Now Autry videochats with family in the United States nearly every other day, and her partner with his family in Shanxi, China, hundreds of miles to the north. The regular calls provide a welcome dose of sanity in a strange new reality. "It’s helped break up the days and remind me life is still going on outside the walls of my apartment," Autry told me over Twitter DM. “When you’re stuck inside for so long it feels like you’re in a vacuum and time is frozen or something. The days kind of blend together and ‘real life’ feels distant and surreal. So the connection to people outside that vacuum is a good reminder of what waits at the end of this crisis period.”

Besides helping to stave off Autry’s stir-craziness, videochatting has quelled some of the anxieties of her parents in Georgia. “For my mom, I know it’s been a huge relief to be able to FaceTime me regularly,” Autry said. “She can see that we are healthy and well and that makes her feel better about the distance between us during this situation.”

Even though videochatting has already infiltrated nearly every kind of modern relationship, it has yet to be tested on such a large scale, over months, in a period of global anxiety—an outcome that seems to be getting likelier as the virus continues to spread. While the thought of indefinite social distancing is stressful, the new reality might even spur people to engage in more frequent and meaningful conversations than they had, when the next visit was certain to be only a few weeks or months away. “With everyone sort of stuck in this situation, there’s a chance to explore new ways of communicating or focusing on improving the way we communicate,” Lomanowska says. Last night, inspired by a new trend in Japan, I went to happy hour with my friends in New York and Chicago—from the comfort of our separate living rooms.

Wright isn’t sure when she will meet her new grandson for the first time. Until then, she’ll keep singing to him. The screen time brings her comfort, even though she knows it might be the safest way she can watch her grandson grow for the foreseeable future.

“You wish you were there,” Wright told me. “But in this way, you are.”

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