The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on social interaction at individual, interpersonal, and societal levels. Individuals have experienced increased stress, mental health challenges, and feelings of isolation. Interpersonal relationships have been reshaped, with a focus on stronger ties while the weaker ones may have suffered more. Social media and online communication have provided both connections and challenges to real-life interactions. At the societal level, economic disparities have influenced the ability to comply with preventive measures and have led to increased social stratification. A rise in discrimination and polarization has also been observed, but there is potential for a shared social identity and values to emerge. The media has played a crucial role in shaping social interactions, emphasizing the need for accurate and reliable information. Ultimately, coordinated efforts are required to address the societal challenges presented by the pandemic, fostering unity, empathy, and accurate information to build a better future together.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way we live our lives, with governments around the world implementing measures of varying strictness to limit interpersonal contact in order to slow down the spread of the virus (e.g. Long ect., 2021; Rodriguez-Rey ect., 2020; Rogers & Cruickshank, 2021; Sommerland ect., 2022; Völker, 2023). These measures have included restrictions on travel, social distancing requirements, mandatory quarantine periods, and closure of businesses and public spaces. It started with recommendations on how to wash hands and cough into your sleeve but soon bans on (public) gatherings of larger groups came into force. Universities, followed by secondary and primary schools moved classes to an online environment; companies sent employees to work remotely; public transport was suspended; bars and other services were closed as well; a ban on crossing countries’ boarders came into force; people had to wear masks and stand two meters apart; and in case of infection or contact with an infected person, individuals had to spend a considerable amount of time in self-isolation. In short, the number of interpersonal contacts was limited to a minimum. From a biological, social, and political point of view, this was a completely logical and correct action. How about psychologically and socially? What happens to people’s mental states when they are locked up behind four walls for at least 14 days? Is the thought of having to maintain a two-meter distance running through their heads the entire time they are walking with a friend? Is their every social interaction accompanied by apprehension?
In this article I try to explore how social interactions and social networks have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, how these changes are reflected in the present and, however hard it might be, make some loose predictions, or rather ruminations, about the future.
The conditions in which we have been living for some time in the past few years have certainly had a huge impact on the form and structure of social interactions. To understand the full spectrum of influences, let me first briefly explain what social interaction is. It refers to all exchanges that take place between two or more people. This includes verbal and non-verbal communication, rapport building, and networking. It is about the exchange of information, behavioral forms, and actions (Ule, 1997; 2005). According to Becaj (1993), social interaction has at least two important sets of functions. Social interactions 1) shape, maintain, change, and transmit the structural model of the environment which individuals don’t acquire through the means of biology but is nonetheless important for their everyday functioning, for example by making sense of an issue through a conversation with an expert or a friend; and 2) enable greater efficiency by grouping and coordinating individuals. A person’s primary groups, such as family and social circle in combination with their cultural and socio-economic background can immensely influence the way they communicate as well as their interpersonal relationships, emotions, and sense of self-worth (Ule, 2005; Zvonarević, 1985). Social groups are also the sole source of social support (the psychological and material resources provided through social interaction), which has been shown to be one of the most important resilience factors in the aftermath of stressful events (Rodriguez-Llanes et al., 2013). The impact of the coronavirus on social interactions between people and the psychological and structural changes are already evident to a certain extent – for example after the relaxation of initial mitigation, social contact rates increased but did not return to pre-COVID levels (Liu et al., 2021) – but greatly still at a level of speculation. In this article I think about this impact on three levels of influence, namely the individual, the interpersonal, and the societal level.
Individual level of influence
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on individuals’ lifestyles and mental health, with many experiencing increased stress and negative emotions due to isolation, uncertainty, and fear for loved ones. Studies have shown a deterioration in psychological well-being (Cowan et al., 2020; Favieri et al., 2020; Rodriguez-Rey et al., 2020; Saffarinia, 2020;), an increase in depressive symptoms, and a higher risk of developing chronic stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Rogers & Cruickshank, 2021). Loneliness was increased, especially for people with previous low connections and social interactions as well as those who lived alone or have had a disadvantaged socioeconomic position, which are often the characteristics of older people (Lampraki et al., 2022; Völker, 2023). Due to the feelings of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, hopelessness, isolation, and stress that were present in the height of the pandemic, an increased use and abuse of alcohol and other substances was evident (Robertset al., 2021), which could lead to a rise of substance addictions. The negative personal experience of the coronavirus could have acted as a “push over the edge” for individuals who were previously at risk of developing psychopathological symptoms, and it could have also worsened the condition of individuals who already had mental disorders. Researchers (Rodriguez-Rey et al., 2020) are already reporting the worsening of mental health. The pandemic has also increased the risk of domestic violence, child abuse, and substance abuse due to lack of regular check-ups, possibilities of escaping the threatening environment, interventions from employers, schools, and other relevant people, and due to the poor economic situation, which increases the stress of individuals and therefore on interpersonal relationships (Santhanam, 2020; Taub, 2020). Healthcare workers were particularly vulnerable to mental health issues due to their high exposure to the virus and exhaustion from overworking (Xiao et al., 2020). Some consequences of the pandemic on social interaction may only become apparent after several years, and addressing mental health issues will be important in the aftermath due to its close connection. This can already be seen in many countries and entities, like European Union (European Comission, 2023) where the mental health of citizens has been put forth as one of the main priorities.
Disturbances that have developed during the epidemic will almost certainly not be eliminated with the relaxation of measures and the reduction of dangers, but will persist and thus affect the most diverse aspects of an individual’s life. It can be expected that individuals who lived longer with stricter measures will find it more difficult to re-establish their “normal” way of life (pre-coronal), which will also include different forms of social contacts and interactions. In countries with stricter measures, for example, individuals might be more careful when greeting a friend, instead of hugging or shaking hands, they might only nod from the distance of one meter or touch elbows. It might be more difficult for people to integrate into society and maintain quality, confidential, and warm social contacts due to dealing with many burdensome symptoms of mental illness and addiction as well as losing certain competences of in-person interactions as a result of wide usage of online forms of interaction, such as social media networks and text-, phone- and video-chats platforms (Katila et al., 2020). The question of whether they will even have the desire or will to act and participate in intimate social situations also arises (Banerjee & Rao, 2020). However, some individuals could better adapt to the pandemic situation and get the most out of it (Brailovskaia & Margraf, 2020). They believed this was just a passing situation they would be able to laugh about afterwards with their friends. Additionally, they might have changed their daily routine in a positive and healthy way – by introducing useful habits, spending more time with their family, and reflecting on themselves and their relationships, which might have been helpful to their functioning after the pandemic since social connectedness, community, hope, and constructive coping act as protective factors against mental disorders (Bernardi & Jobson, 2019; Long & Gallagher, 2018; Thompson et al., 2018).
Interpersonal level of influence
This brings me to the second level of influence of Covid-19 pandemic on social interaction, which is interpersonal. Research reports the shrinkage of social networks where stronger ties were preserved better, while weaker ties more often decayed (Völker, 2023). This can be explained by stronger ties providing more resources and therefore more likely being retained, as well as by the higher likelihood of intentionally connecting to people we have stronger ties with via face-to-face meetings and phone/video contact even without the pandemic. Distinctively, keeping in touch with weaker ties works mainly through occasional social media contact and coincidental and spontaneous in-person meetings – the latter possibility was greatly reduced during the pandemic as a result of limiting social activities together with increasing online communication. Research has found that people with higher quality, more face-to-face or phone/video contact had fewer depressive symptoms, although the negative effects of the lack of contact were greater for those with higher levels of usual sociability, since it was a bigger change (Sommerlad, et al., 2021). However, some relationships are not as easily transferable to the online world, for example, newly established relationships (e.g. university students), which might have resulted in lost contacts and a heightened risk of social isolation. Consistent with this, young adults were most likely to report a worsening of relationships during COVID-19, whereas older adults were less likely to report change (Fancourt, et al., 2020). Relatedly, increasing online communication has disrupted the opportunities for spontaneous social interactions and socializing beyond one’s inner circle, for example coworkers in the break room, students during lunch…, which can be a form of social support (Granovetter, 1983; Patulny et al., 2020). Moreover, given that weaker ties also provide more diversity of resources, opinions, and support whereas stronger ties show a tendency towards homophily (a phenomenon of associating with individuals who are similar to self), COVID – 19 likely resulted in networks that are smaller and more homogenous (Long, et al., 2021).
Personal growth and resilience described in the paragraph above can lead to better relationships with people closest to us, but research (Fancourt et al., 2020) has shown that relationships with neighbors displayed the largest net gain in ratings of relationship quality compared with a range of relationship types (e.g. partner, colleague, friend), most likely explainable by increased neighborly support and local volunteering due to geographical restrictions (e.g. stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions). However, forced proximity, pandemic-related relational strain (Pietromonaco & Overall, 2020) and economic and other stressors can also lead to negative consequences, such as aggression (Ellemers & Jetten, 2013; Greenaway et al., 2015), domestic violence, physical and verbal abuse (Owen, 2020; Campbell, 2020) and relationship problems (Karney & Neff, 2013).
In a similarly ambivalent way, we can look at social media. They offer a way to connect with others without violating social distancing measures and access to help through online tools but can also lead to social comparison perpetuating negative self-image and emotions, resulting in reduced connection (Helliwell & Huang, 2013; Verduyn, et al., 2015). It can negatively affect people with addictions and interpersonal relationships. If people developed the habit of over-relying on social media for a sense of social belonging and connectedness during the epidemic, this could have greatly impaired their social competence in everyday life, making it difficult to feel the real connection that comes from being physically and emotionally close to another human being. Children and adolescents’ use of online tools can affect their ability to interact with peers – for example dependency on social media or social exclusion because of lack of access to smartphones and computers (which can be a result of a less fortunate parental socioeconomical situation) – and returning to school may be difficult due to changes in friendships and classroom climate as well as regression or underdevelopment of social skills. Online education many youngsters were exposed to during the pandemic also had an impact on their social skills – research (Günindi, 2022) has shown online educated children were less socially adapted and more socially incompatible than the face-to-face education group of children. Shortly, the technology has provided us with a lot of benefits during the orders for social distancing but did come with many dangerous downfalls we will have to navigate in the future.
Societal level of influence
The third level of influence for COVID-19 on social interaction is societal. I have already related to it to some extent by mentioning the differences between the economic positions of the parents and their influence on children’s socializing (when it comes to access to technology) at a time when physical distancing is emphasized. The economic situation was also related to the ability to comply with the measures. For example, the homeless could not stay at home, families living in complexes without running water could not wash their hands regularly, those without health insurance were more likely to avoid testing or treatment if they became ill, people who relied heavily on public transport found it more difficult to avoid congestion, and people with lower incomes were often employed in jobs where remote work was not possible. A poorer economic situation has also been associated with a higher risk of infection, a more severe form of symptomatology, and higher mortality after infection, mainly due to a weaker immune system and a higher frequency of diabetes, heart disease, and chronic lung disease (Cockerham et al., 2017) as well as increased feelings of loneliness (Völker, 2023).
These correlates, including the increased homogeneity of opinions, resources, and support of social networks (Long et al., 2021), can be the basis for increasing the stratification of society. This makes social interaction between members of individual groups more difficult, as the state of crisis in the country or society in general is associated with greater ethnocentrism (Schaller & Neuberg, 2012), less tolerance, and rejecting behavior towards members of other social groups (Feldman & Stenner, 1997; Jackson et al., 2019) as well as lower empathy towards those who are distant in terms of social status (Cikara et al., 2011; Han, 2018). As a result, discrimination might increase, the search for a “scapegoat” can appear or intensify, to which racial and ethical minorities are particularly exposed to (for example, Roma in Slovenia, Latin Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and American indigenous people in the USA). They can be blamed for the spread of infections and the prolongation of repressive measures due to non-compliance with safety recommendations. But since the pandemic affected everyone regardless of social and economic status, race and nationality, people might have been brought together and created a sense of shared identity and values (a.k.a. overcoming the virus), leading to increased concern for others, altruism, and cooperation (Drury et al., 2009; Drury, 2018).
The media played a crucial role in shaping social interactions during the pandemic. Since the number of and belief in conspiracy theories increases in times of crises and events with serious consequences (which the pandemic qualifies for) (Douglas, 2021), it is important to provide accurate and reliable information that encourages goal-oriented thinking and hope, instead of spreading misinformation and fear. The multifaceted impact of COVID-19 on social interaction underscores the need for concerted efforts to address the societal challenges it has presented, fostering unity, empathy, and accurate information to navigate these trying times and build a better future together.
In conclusion, COVID-19 has affected social interaction on three levels: individual, interpersonal, and societal. The impact on individuals is mainly on their mental state, which affects their behavior and relationships. The impact on interpersonal relationships can either strengthen or weaken them, depending on the individuals involved and their mental resilience. At the societal level, COVID-19 has led to stratification, discrimination, and polarization, but also the possibility of creating a common social identity. Social networks and media have played a crucial role in communication during social distancing. I end my thinking with the conclusion that if the success of dealing with the virus is clearly visible and people took the pandemic as an opportunity for self-growth, there is a higher chance of people connecting more strongly both on an interpersonal and community level, as well as on a social and global level, and trusting each other more, which could lead to more pleasant, warm, and empathetic interactions. It is up to the reader to decide for themselves if that is indeed the case. My faith in our ability to achieve this is somewhat shaky, as there is also a fairly large possibility that the epidemic has only deepened the divide between people and social groups. Anyhow, seeing people being adaptable and resilient creatures in the face of change, I believe we can achieve a positive outcome.
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