How social media saved our summer

Despite a sometimes dodgy reputation, online interactions have in many ways become a force for good since Covid-19, helping to connect us through tough times
Illustration: Alia Wilhelm

Maybe it was a silly five minutes spent leaping around to fitness guru Joe Wicks’ morning live-streamed PE class, or banging a saucepan in response to #ClapForOurCarers while trying to swallow that lump in your throat. Whatever your moment, it became clear that when lockdown made our lives feel smaller and scarier, social media could help us get through it. Even sceptics found an app, meme or ‘coronaviral’ video that brought a moment’s laughter, release or, above all, connection.

‘Social interaction is an incredibly important feature of what makes us human,’ explains Jonathan Freeman, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. ‘Even when we lived as hunter-gatherers, the ability to communicate effectively and co-ordinate activities was essential to survival.’

And today, we still need social interactions to thrive. ‘Isolation is associated with a negative impact on an individual’s wellbeing – their mood, their anxiety, their stress – and that can have consequences for their physical health,’ adds Professor Freeman. Luckily, social media shrugged off its villainous rep (mostly!) and came to the rescue, swooping in like a superhero – with hashtags instead of a cape – ready to rescue us from cabin fever.

Craving connection

We quickly discovered that the usual WhatsApp messages or Instagram stories we rely on for keeping in touch weren’t enough when there was no chance of meeting friends and family IRL (in real life). ‘When Covid-19 struck, we saw a huge shift in people relying on video, because it’s the closest thing to face-to-face,’ says Professor Freeman. ‘You can see others’ facial expressions; you can smile at each other.’ Those non-verbal cues can’t be underestimated.

Plus, of course, a picture is worth a thousand words. Lyndsey McKay, 35, from London, got her 86-year-old grandma on FaceTime when in-person visits became impossible: ‘On an audio call, it’s hard to read people. Grandma is very good at saying, “I’m fine”, but seeing her allowed me to check for differences in her appearance and health,’ says Lyndsey.

Honesty rules

Lockdown also shone a light on some of the things that make us similar – like a drive to bake banana bread in times of crisis! And social media was the mirror reflecting it.

Suddenly, the BC (before Covid) #influencer culture seemed almost absurd. ‘There are far fewer posts showing off because, for a start, no one is going on glamorous holidays, but I also think people have become more mindful of others in difficult situations,’ says Professor Freeman. Instead, there’s been an outpouring of honesty.

Cara Head, 37, from Devon, was seven months pregnant when she had to self-isolate, and feels the circumstances brought her closer to fellow parents-to-be. ‘My NCT group set up Zoom meetings. Because we were sharing the stress of coronavirus, it made us more open than I think we would’ve been.’ And she found unexpected positives to communicating virtually: ‘There’s something about sitting in your own surroundings that can reduce the fear of speaking to others.’

‘In a way, it has been easier than ever for people to admit they’re lonely,’ adds Dr Karen Gregory, lecturer in digital sociology at the University of Edinburgh. ‘There’s less fear that [the admission]reflects something being wrong with them, as it’s a situation we’ve all found ourselves in. And there’s so much opportunity right now for people to reach out digitally – with virtual pubs, community hubs, book groups… ’ For those already isolated or introverted, it has ushered in a whole new world of connection.

Similarly, local neighbourhood WhatsApp and Facebook groups have rocketed in numbers. ‘Being locked down showed up our interdependence and that brought out something in us: that we care – for ourselves and each other,’ says Dr Gregory.

‘We’ve seen such wonderful acts of kindness from the community – free pizzas and hand moisturiser, and discounted taxis,’ says 35-year-old surgical trainee doctor Jill Bright* from Kent. ‘These small things are a reminder that the world is watching and appreciating.’

This was also the aim of the UK’s weekly #ClapForOurCarers applause for NHS and key workers, of course, which Jill confessed moved her and many of her colleagues to tears. Sure, that first time we took to our doorsteps en masse was primarily to thank those keeping society afloat. But it was also a chance to see neighbours across the fence, hear saucepans clanging down the street and, ultimately, feel less alone. ‘Social media can quickly spread an instruction,’ says Professor Freeman. ‘And, in joining in, you feel you’re in a collective, with strength in numbers.’

The ‘web’ of wellbeing

With spin sessions, group runs and yoga classes vetoed, millions of us have loved turning to our screens to help keep our wellness on track. Not to mention the endless new things to try, from Calm app meditations to website Obby’s online classes for mindful hobbies, and culinary ideas courtesy of superchef Massimo Bottura’s IGTV cookery classes!

Press ‘esc’

The one thing we all need in times of crisis? Escapism. And social media came up trumps, whether it was the Gummy Bear Adele concert meme, virtual pub quizzes or comedians doing a live-stream. Dr Gregory agrees: ‘It’s important to have an outlet to keep laughter alive in a moment of really intense sorrow.’

But what of the traditional summer escapisms? Wimbledon, Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe may be cancelled, but we’ll undoubtedly find a way to ‘gather’ via the power of social media and make the best of things. Lyndsey McKay even attended a ‘virtual hen do’: ‘The bridesmaids sent goodies to the groom to decorate their house as a surprise. Everyone donned fancy dress, poured a drink and joined in on Zoom. It was really special.’

And, of course, summer getaways are off the calendar for now, spawning a slew of spoofs of cruises and outdoor adventures at home (#ourgreatindoors and #stayhomegetout have captured some of the most creative), not to mention the holiday-themed Zoom backgrounds popping up during meetings everywhere.

But for all its 24/7 entertainment, it’s vital we take time off social media – especially from the heartbreaking news alerts and beyond-belief conspiracy theories. ‘Constantly searching “breaking news” will break you,’ says Jodie Cook, owner of JC Social Media agency. ‘A newspaper has a natural finish, whereas online content doesn’t, so you have to set your own.’

Even the seemingly positive can have downsides. Take video chat: ‘There can be a time lag between what people say and their expressions – this forces you to concentrate, which is exhausting,’ notes Professor Freeman. Keeping calls short can make them less taxing.

However summer unfolds, life will be about balance. There will be virtual festivals, picnics and parties. But sometimes a BBQ at home – even if alone – will be a precious moment to escape your screen. It won’t be the summer we planned, but the sun will shine, birds will sing, and when we’re finally reunited IRL it will be all the brighter…

The apps we loved while in lockdown

Caribu: this family-activity video-calling app allows grandparents, aunties, uncles and family friends to play games, follow recipes, and read books with kids on a virtual playdate. Lovely for staying connected – and a welcome break for parents.

QuarantineChat: missing the random interactions at the corner shop or in the office lift? This app connects you with random people, at random times, for totally random chats. Hello, serendipity.

Netflix Party: this free extension for the Google Chrome browser lets you sync your Netflix viewing with friends and family elsewhere. Plus, there’s a built-in chat function. It’s like having a movie night together – except you get more room on the sofa.

Houseparty: not just another video-calling platform, it also has games so you can compete against your buds while catching up.


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*Name has been changed.