UNLV prof Natalie Pennington on lessons learned from pandemic isolation


It’s been a jarring year of social isolation. And though there’s hope the world will continue to open as COVID-19 cases trend downward and vaccinations roll out, it’s worth reflecting on what the pandemic has shown us about the ways we communicate with one another.

Thanks to new research by UNLV communication studies professor and social media expert Natalie Pennington, we have insights into how we deal with isolation. Pennington and co-authors Jeff Hall and Amanda Holmstrom surveyed nearly 2,000 adults across the United States, and their study, “Connecting Through Technology During COVID-19,” has been published in the journal Human Communication & Technology.

In their findings are lessons we can take with us as we build our post-pandemic life, including:

• Older adults are faring better than younger adults in dealing with isolation. “Young adults were probably socializing in person quite a bit more than older adults pre-pandemic,” Pennington says. “So that drop was quite a bit harder for them.”

• Older adults benefited from a communication tool in their proverbial toolbox: email. The technology helped decrease the loneliness of middle-aged and older adults, while it made younger adults feel worse. “That doesn’t surprise me too much,” Pennington says. “In the early days of technology, people used email for social reasons, and today that’s not quite as common.”

• One might assume video chats would be better than phone calls for helping people feel connected because it’s a richer medium, but Pennington’s research found the opposite to be true. “Based on the results of this study, the No. 1 recommendation is to pick up the phone and call someone,” Pennington says. “Across the board, phone calls decreased loneliness [and] decreased stress. Outside of face-to-face communication, it was the best form of technology somebody could use.”

• That Zoom fatigue you’ve been feeling isn’t just in your imagination. “We found that video chat can actually increase stress and increase feelings of loneliness,” Pennington says. Though video chat adds visual cues and context to a conversation, Pennington found that “it wasn’t quite right” for a lot of people. “You don’t know how to balance [who talks in] big groups; it’s not as natural as face-to-face; you’re also staring at yourself,” Pennington says. She calls it the “uncanny valley” of communication. “There’s just something off about it, like I saw you but I didn’t feel connected and now I feel worse.” One caveat is that if you already feel comfortable with a person and enjoy video chatting with them, it can provide a meaningful connection. Moral of the story: Don’t feel obligated to use a trending technology just because it’s there.

• That doesn’t mean, however, that you should be afraid of experimenting with new technologies. Our options are evolving fast, and you might land upon something that works for you. “It was really cool to hear people talk about the creative ways they were making use of video chat, like doing virtual dance parties with friends because they couldn’t go to the club,” Pennington says. If you’re going to video chat, having an activity or purpose can make it more fun and natural than engaging in random chitchat. “My sister’s doing a gender-reveal party for her baby next weekend,” Pennington said. “I’m going via video chat, and I’m really excited about being able to participate.”

• Video game playing related to greater stress and loneliness. “With video games, we’re not necessarily connecting or communicating with others,” Pennington says. “Like, I got out of pandemic mode for a couple of hours playing this game, but now I’m back and I haven’t actually dealt with any of that stress, or talked to anybody to decrease my loneliness.” Note that the research did not parse out the type of video games played, so it’s possible collaborative games are more fulfilling than solo games.

• Ultimately, the research showed, nothing truly compares to in-person interaction. “Face-to-face communication was the only thing where someone felt like they got their social needs met,” Pennington says. “I think that’s a good reminder that technology can supplement, but it can’t replicate face-to-face interactions.”

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