Before coronavirus (COVID-19) kept us in our homes and away from our peers, Millennials had been practicing our own form of social distancing. We spent hours bent over our cellphones, iPads, laptops and every smart device out there to better connect with the world around us. In doing so, we found it easier to distance ourselves from each other while still feeling just as, if not more so, engaged with our friends and family.
Text messages made it easier to catch up with friends through blue and green bubbles at any time of day. Facebook opened up our worlds to old and new friends across the globe. Instagram gave us reasons to create lifestyles that seemed interesting, unattainable and straight out of a movie set while Twitter became a place to share updates in 140 characters or less.
As technology advanced, the importance of real-life social connection began to fade and we began having the same interactions with much less effort. Everywhere we went, we were given the opportunity to avoid speaking with others.
Want to stay in a hotel and not be bothered with seeing any other guests? Self-check-in, room service via iPads and robot concierges ensured we never had to make small talk again. Financial institutions created their own apps where we could see our balances, transfer money, deposit checks and create travel alerts without having to physically go into our banks. Even Starbucks allows us to bypass chatty cashiers and grab our pre-ordered drinks on a separate counter from in-store customers.
When dating apps made their way onto the scene, they gave us a chance to meet eligible men and women we may never have met in our immediate circles. Yet, this also led to a culture of discontentment — the grass will always be greener in one or two more swipes, just keep going. It also introduced us to ghosting, a way for people to avoid real conversations and get out of uncomfortable situations by simply never speaking with their matches again. No texts, no calls, no accountability.
With every new path forward, it seems as if we took two steps back when it came to face-to-face communication. Ask most Millennials today and they’ll likely tell you that they prefer texting to picking up the phone and speaking with someone. If we wanted, in-person interactions could be eliminated (or greatly reduced), without it actually affecting our daily lives.
And all the while, the more connected we became, the lonelier we felt. We began wishing our lives were different, considered the number of “likes” on our photos as a litmus test of our self-worth and compared ourselves to others in ways we hadn’t before. The irony? We asked for it; we created the 21st century to look like this. Our generation pioneered much of the technology that was meant to make life easier on us without fully understanding the weight of our choices. In 2020, our nation feels assuredly self-focused, resolutely discontent and more divided than ever before. We wanted connection; we got detachment.
Then came COVID-19. As government officials began mandating shelter-in-place orders and self-quarantines across the U.S., we found ourselves living through the ultimate test of social distancing — and we weren’t ready for how it’d affect us. It only takes a quick scroll through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any social media platform to see that we are having a hard time. We’ve lost the ability to interact face-to-face with people and it has reminded us of the importance of relationships beyond our screens, something that even the greatest technology could never fully replicate.
As we sit and wait for the unknown, we have begun bonding with our neighbors, calling our friends more often and even cooking meals for each other just to have the chance to feel united again. Residents are keeping their communities afloat by donating gift cards to their favorite local businesses, ordering takeout from nearby restaurants, or starting GoFundMe campaigns for mom and pop shops to ensure they make it through this pandemic.
#QuarantineChallenges have popped up on social platforms to create a sense of community during this time with a “we’re-all-in-this-together” type of sentiment. Regardless of age, we’ve stepped up to help to the most vulnerable around us who may fear leaving their homes, or write letters of encouragement to those who may be struggling with isolation. Social networking apps like Nextdoor have introduced new features that allow people in neighboring communities to offer their services to those in need, whether you know them or not.
For a generation that has perfected smoke and mirrors, we’ve never been more vulnerable and more engaged than we are at this moment. Daily check-ins are becoming commonplace as we learn to take the focus off ourselves and onto others. We’re craving the closeness we pulled away from for so long. We desire to crack jokes with our coworkers at the lunch table, lineup our mats at our favorite yoga studios and clink glasses with friends during happy hours.
We’ve taken these simple interactions for granted for too long, and maybe, once the world returns to a place of normalcy, we won’t go back to the way it used to be. We’ll put our phones down more, listen with attentive ears, love harder with physical touch and begin to place value on real relationships again.
Luckily, there is still time to course-correct for future generations — to do better, be better and give each other more of our time. It’s easy to get caught up in our work and day-to-day responsibilities that make us too busy to share our lives with the people we care about. But you never know when everything could be taken away from you in an instant.
Our careers aren’t going to tuck us in at night and our gyms aren’t going to console us after a hard breakup. There is a time and place for advances in technology but let’s not keep moving forward at the expense of human connection.
Before we end up in 1984, telling ourselves that our television screens are our friends, or living in a Brave New World where technology has dehumanized us to the point of no return, let’s regroup, shake things off and try again. If there’s a silver lining to weeks of social distancing, I hope that it is the chance to bring us closer together instead of farther apart.