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Connecting Despite COVID-19: The Role of Social Media During a Pandemic

One of the most universally agreed upon losses felt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been human connection. Being forced to quarantine indoors for months, stay at least six feet apart from those outside of our households, and wear a piece of fabric over half of our faces, people worldwide felt a deep sense of isolation and disconnection from loved ones since March of 2020. While Zoom played a large role in keeping families, friends, classes, and colleagues connected, most calls place time limits on users, so people of all ages searched for ways to keep in constant contact with others.

Enter social media. Whether it was Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or Gen Z’s newest addiction, TikTok, people all over the world took to social platforms to stay in touch with friends, fill downtime, and keep up with current events. According to the Digital 2021 report by the social media management company Hootsuite, released in January of this year, approximately 4.20 billion people used social media, over half of the world’s entire population. The report stated that 1.3 million users joined social media every day in 2020, which is equivalent to 15 new profiles per second.

Many members of Haverford’s community used social media during the pandemic for the same reasons that most people did: connection, entertainment, and news. Among students, purposes for social media since March 2020 included “cop[ing] with the loss of social interaction,” (Lydia Guertin ’24) “stay[ing] in contact with friends,” (Max Rosenberg ’24) “to distract myself,” (Riley Sobol ’24) and “[a] cure for boredom” (Reesha Gandhi ’24). 

However, these same students, along with most of their Haverford peers and future peers, also used social media as a means of education and activism, especially because in-person opportunities were few and far between. For example, social media accounts such as @hc_strike, @bicomutualaid, and @haverfordbsl kept students informed and aware during Haverford’s student-led strike last fall. Especially for community members not living on campus at the time, the accounts allowed the student body to stay united in its goal and up-to-date with ways to contribute. Jean Wriggins ’24 summarized the role of social media during the strike: 

“During the Haverford strike, social media became a way to organize—thank you to the students who put in so much work and time organizing the strike and communicating its goals to the student body—and to share ways to help out, such as with @bicomutualaid, although I know they had been doing work before the strike as well. It also became a way to share information about what was happening at Haverford with people outside of the college community.”

Hannah Roberts ’24 emphasized the importance of having social media during the strike, especially since campus life was more isolated this year. “Without social media, it would have been as if I was left in the dark. I was very secluded on campus,” she said.

Beyond the strike, Haverford students cited social media as a beneficial resource for finding and sharing information regarding critical social causes. Sobol shared that her “main reasons for using social media during the pandemic [were] to find information about how to support others, such as small businesses and how to advocate for racial equality, the end of police brutality and criminal justice reform.”

Yet, social media was not a solely positive force in the lives of people worldwide, Haverford students included, during the pandemic. For example, Rosenberg expressed concerns with the way social media, as a sole means of communication for most of the pandemic year, impacted the way people were perceived “for better or for worse.” He described feeling like “a lot of people, forced to rely on social media perceptions of people instead of judgements from in person interactions, can misinterpret a person’s intent or even misjudge someone entirely.”

Guertin added that, while social media had a positive impact on her during the pandemic for the most part  “it really took a toll on [her] mental health” for a few months. Jon Hill ’24, while thankful for social media during the lockdown months, agreed that the impact was not all positive. During quarantine, “I did get addicted to it and I still struggle doing my homework because I watch a lot of YouTube,” he said.

Whether the world is experiencing a global pandemic or not, social media is a double-edged sword. It can help us stay connected despite a lack of in-person contact, it can keep us informed, and it can help take our minds off struggles in our personal lives. Yet, it can also become dangerously addictive and give us false, seemingly perfect, standards with which to compare ourselves to, damaging mental health. Reflecting on the overall impact of social media on herself and others during the pandemic, Gandhi concluded that the key to positive social media usage is moderation: 

“Social media in my opinion has very negative connotations in society. But I think it has helped my mental health by making me feel connected to everyone while also being so disconnected. It taught me a lot and is still pretty prevalent for me. As unhealthy as it can be, I think within a certain limit it can definitely be helpful.”

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