Virtual Reality – what better way to describe the current state of the world’s tech capital, if not the entire world itself? Almost overnight, to slow the spread of COVID-19, school, work, and social gatherings have turned virtual to maintain social distancing guidelines. Faced with this new lifestyle, everyone seems to be scrambling to understand the long-term effects of conducting reality virtually.
At the heart of this question are the teens – for whom this experience will be their introduction to life in the real world. But as the merits and consequences of a virtual reality continue to be debated, today’s teens have done what they do best – use technology to adapt to and influence the changing circumstances.
Although social media has long been denounced due to research showing that it weakens interpersonal connections, in a time when such applications of technology are the only lifeline to social interactions, teens are finding creative ways to put it to use. Since the beginning of shelter in place orders, Instagram challenges have taken hold as ways to not only keep busy, but also to participate in a collective activity. One such challenge aimed to empower women by encouraging them to post solo pictures of themselves – and then tag their friends to continue the chain. A similar challenge was #finodomani (italian for “until tomorrow”), in which whoever unknowingly liked a silly picture posted on a friend’s Instagram account for 24 hours (hence the title) had to pass the challenge on by posting one themselves. Also prevalent have been Bingo templates that list common experiences for people in various groups (clubs, school, etc.) and ask members to mark the ones they have done as a way to look back fondly on the organizations we are each a part of. Although not always the focus when spreading these messages, the challenges highlight an effort on the part of teens to spread positivity and remind ourselves of what we share in a time where the face-to-face interactions that facilitate empathy are not possible.
Beyond uniting teens around the world, social media has turned into a platform to advocate for mental health awareness. Daily posts from school organizations and mental health resources reach and engage a majority of students in a way administrator communications never could, ensuring that teens have a support system in place, even if it is virtual. Moreover, peers are reaching out to one another, encouraging friends to take care of themselves and sharing their new normals to send a reminder that nobody is alone. Now more than ever, social media collectively seems to be sending a message to take a breath and focus inwards, in a mission that was once the antithesis of what it symbolized.
Furthermore, social media has allowed teens to maintain an important but underappreciated aspect of being at school – the acquaintance relationship. What used to be side conversations during or between classes with classmates have been lost as instruction moved online. Although social media is not the same, it does provide contact with a wider network of peers than our closest friends, and through posts and stories we can continue sharing the small, insignificant moments of daily life and support each other as we decide where the next stages of our lives are taking us.
Whether it is continuing challenges, reaching out to friends, or just staying in touch, teens are using social media to bridge the distances that have formed today. With it they are reshaping the virtual molds that now must preserve the human connections at the basis of our reality.