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The COVID-19 epidemic spanning nearly the entire planet, as we know, has reduced the need for contact with other human beings. Social-distancing policies in all facets of life have required us to avoid large gatherings, remain at least six feet apart, and wear a mask or shield over the nose and mouth. While part of the population has followed these policies, believing mask-wearing to be beneficial, others have shirked them wholeheartedly, regarding the requirement as an infringement on their personal rights. The opposing views have created a vast rift in humanity’s regard of one another.

The psychological consequences of social distancing are hardly debatable, even for those who see the practice as prudent while a virus sweeps across the nation. After all, people are social creatures, and we bond through contact: dancing, hugging/kissing, team sports, sharing food/meals, shaking/holding hands, and much more. Just as it can feel socially awkward when someone stands too close, it can also be off-putting when someone stands too far away during a conversation. It’s also especially true that, during times of uncertainty, people turn to one another for emotional, social, and other forms of support. As such, the damage caused by the need to “social distance” during the pandemic has contributed to the struggle many have mental illness; it has even caused many who don’t usually suffer such ailments to report trouble.[1] We’ve already mentioned that suicide rates have spiked since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic. Additionally, some professionals state that even after the world “returns to normal, the following year will not be a good one for mental health.”[2] In fact, these say that the spike in substance abuse during the COVID lockdowns should illustrate that employees in “work-from-home situations” need to be made aware of the support available to them, and that managers should be aware that this type of working arrangement may not always operate as ideally as planned.[3]

Exacerbating the issue of social distancing is the way that increased screen time—via television, video games, social media, and such—has interfered with interpersonal relationships. Researchers have, for years, been concerned about the splintering of personal interaction and the desensitization caused by such use. In a world where engaging in community is one of the most vital ways people are meant to thrive, repeatedly witnessing killings and other violence dehumanizes our view of those around us. This point has been discussed elsewhere in this project so we won’t elaborate here. Suffice it to say, the devaluing of human life and depersonifying of our neighbors occurs every day in our world, thanks—in large part—to media and technology. Before “social distancing” even came into the picture, it was an issue threatening to diminish our love and compassion for one another.

However, the situation emerging along with COVID-19 has managed to escalate the issue. Social media had already made many feel as though they were in competition—who has the biggest house, the most successful career, the happiest marriage. The COVID distancing that drove folks to Facebook, Instagram, and other venues even more often further served to transition people from being peers to being competitors, stripping others of their humanity and strengthening their image as an icon of rivalry. Additionally, a new level of such contention was introduced, one that suggested that a person could even be a source of threat. No longer was the “boogey man” a frightening specter in a spooky movie. The “villain” had now become the woman next door who refused to wear a mask or the guy from church who grabbed the last five four-packs of toilet paper at the local supercenter. During the COVID lockdowns, friends sometimes became enemies, posing dangers both viral and material. Our fellow man became those we were increasingly desensitized about, but they also became competitors for supplies…and they had the potential to contaminate us as well! In a world filled with digital ways to objectify and dehumanize the people around us, social distancing has severed our personal contact, which was among the last ways we still reveled in co-humanity. If our ability to have personal connections to and interactions with one another isn’t restored, many could cross into psychological territory that it’s extremely difficult to return from. The stay-home orders caused people to juggle the mental and emotional fallout of isolation and hopelessness without being able to access the emotional support of others; even when those orders ease and folks are allowed to venture out into society, they’re forced to refrain from physical contact—no hugging, no hand-shaking…nothing. If social distancing becomes the “new normal,” we face the bleak reality of learning to live without a vital coping mechanism—the human touch—during unprecedentedly difficult times. Consider this excerpt from Unscrambling the Millennials Paradox that elaborates on the damage dealt by isolation:

Isolation is a form of loneliness that runs much deeper than rejection and leads to hopelessness that makes people feel that they are alone in the world. When people are exposed to short seasons of such conditions and have enough life experience to understand that the pain is situational or temporary, and supportive relationships are present, they can maneuver through these troubled times. But when…[people] are positioned within a society that carries a continual undertone of adversity [and] have few or no relationships they can call upon for help, their hope is diminished… Isolated long enough, people become particularly vulnerable to suicidal thoughts. The deadly problem with isolation is that when people begin to…[succumb to such hopeless thinking as thoughts that prelude suicide], there is often no one around to tell them otherwise—or at least nobody they are capable of hearing in their moment of acute pain.[4]

Culture, at this time, is attempting to learn to carry on without physical contact. Yet, touch—whether it’s the thrill of a first kiss, the brush of a finger on a newborn baby’s cheek, a comforting embrace after the loss of a loved one, the silent communication with one who cannot speak, the hand-holding and ring-around-the-rosy playing of childhood, the sweeping away of another’s tears, the laying on of hands in devout intercessory prayer—is vital to our psychological health. Touch is the first communication of love that we receive as infants, and it speaks to us long before we have learned language. It is the most basic of human needs, and it needs to be restored in our society.

Isolation Skews Reality

As social media, reality TV, and even lifelike online video games connect people, but through a digital means, the time-honored way that the mind interacts with others has the potential to become skewed. Consider the way social media distances and dehumanizes our neighbors, while shooting victims in video games, for example, become more real to us. As interfacing with computerized images gives those avatars a more intimate, tangible identity in the minds of those who are isolated than real people do, it’s feasible to believe that harming a real-life acquaintance could eventually become even easier than it would be to victimize characters in a video game. This may seem far-fetched, but studies have shown that the media-aggression connection is real (as has been discussed in another part of this series), and many of our young people have spent several months alone with their video games during the pandemic lockdowns and school closures. Their impressionable minds are malleable, they face a world that currently offers little hope, and they’re now struggling with the loss of human contact.

With online sites offering what many passively acknowledge as “fake news,” these young people are also potentially struggling with their grasp of reality. It would seem that each time we engage in social media, there’s a new report of something fearful, leaving users to decide what—and what not—to believe. For example, a meme circulating on Facebook during midsummer 2020 stated that the upcoming November election would be canceled due to the virus. The image was immediately removed by network admins each time it was posted, but there were people who saw it and panicked. Other memes making similar claims have been distributed without being removed. How can a young person, afraid and alone but for his digital friends, separate reality from fiction in this frightening world? Ordinarily, he might ask a teacher at school, but that’s not much of an option when schools are closed. He might ask a friend, but mandated stay-home orders have diminished communication. He might even ask a parent or guardian, but the adults in his life likely seem so preoccupied with the financial (and other) stressors that accompany sudden unemployment or other virus-related fears that he may not bother. Further, if he’s in an abusive situation, he merely stays hidden as much as possible during such times; drawing attention to himself by asking questions isn’t something he’s likely to do. Sure, he could call, text, or email someone his questions, but he may simply lack the boldness. The bottom line is that much of our younger generation spent the bulk of 2020 afraid, alone, interacting more with media than with people, lacking physical contact with caring people, and wondering if life would ever “be okay” again.

Interestingly, this period has the potential to alter one’s perception of reality for the rest of his or her life not just emotionally but on a literal and cognitive level as well. The brain—literally speaking—is under heightened attack in our current circumstances. It isn’t fully formed at birth, but continues physically developing via our memories and experiences throughout childhood and well into young adulthood, and sometimes even later.[5]

Consider one neuroscientist’s comments on how our experiences—not only our genetics—hold vast authority over the way the brain can be permanently altered:

At a microcellular level, the infinitely complex network of nerve cells that make up the constituent parts of the brain actually change in response to certain experiences and stimuli. The brain, in other words, is malleable—[capable of changing throughout the lifespan].[6]

Consider the recent isolation of our youth and the malleability of the brain in conjunction with what has become known as the TikTok suicide (although it may have originated on Facebook, not TikTok). In September 2020, a brutal video began to meander through social media that allegedly showed a man shooting himself with a gun. While sites scrambled to remove the graphic video, user re-uploads thwarted efforts to stop it completely. Warnings appeared stating that accounts reposting the media would be banned; others cautioned users “to look out for an image—a man sitting in front of his desk with a grey beard—and swipe away from the video.”[7] Worse, new advisories surfaced, stating that clips of the suicide were being spliced into unrelated videos, meaning that a person could be watching something completely unrelated and suddenly see the awful act.[8] Some people were even twisted enough to cut the scene into videos geared toward young people, such as images containing kittens or puppies.[9] This isn’t the only time such a clip has circulated, and once viral, it’s difficult to completely, permanently remove. Copycat posts have also been dispersed wherein people pretend to commit suicide, but then later are revealed to have performed a sick joke. It is both sad and deplorable that our youth live in a world where they can be unwittingly accosted and made to witness an actual murder, suicide, or other violence while scrolling through social media on their phone or computer in search of connection to other human beings.

Again, in the long-term isolation of their bedrooms during COVID shutdowns, it’s possible for a young person to lose touch with reality. (If you doubt this, consider how their days become nights and vice versa, and how even their wakeful moments can be spent in a dreamlike state.) While digital “people” become more humanized and the real people nearby become more distant, they’re bound to experience increased confusion about reality in the upcoming months. The best remedy for this is to allow their human contact to resume. Some may think that can be accomplished with the reopening of schools. While school offers the opportunity for some socialization with teacher and peers, provides structure and routine to the day, and promotes accountability and responsibility, it’s not a perfect setting. Our families, loved ones, friends, and churches need to be allowed to reach out to young people to remind them that they have a support network, should they need it.

UP NEXT: Check the Children

If you would like more information on the topics covered in this article series, see the book Dark Covenant by Donna Howell and Allie Anderson, available below:

[1] Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020.” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: icon.

[2] Blanchard, Dave. “The Unintended Consequences of Social Distancing.” EHS Today. September 1, 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Anderson, Allie. Unscrambling the Millennial Paradox, 50.

[5] Susan Greenfield, “Modern Technology Is Changing the Way Our Brains Work, Says Neuroscientist,” MailOnline.com

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alexander, Julia. “TikTok Is Racing to Stop the Spread of a Gruesome Video.” The Verge. September 7, 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[8] Ibid.

[9] WPTV News, FL Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast. “Parents Warned of ‘Graphic’ Suicide Video on TikTok.” September 10, 2020. YouTube Video, 1:57. Accessed November 6, 2020.

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