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Maintaining positive social media interactions during COVID-19

Image of soldier looking at his cell phone. Click to open a larger version of the image. Although a great communication tool with friends and family, service members need to be mindful of the pitfalls of social media. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Austin Shaffner.)

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As the Department of the Air Force's chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Steve Schaick has seen firsthand the power of social media to forge connections during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, airmen have signed onto Facebook Live events in increasingly higher numbers, said Schaick, who's also a chaplain. Participation has been so strong that the Air Force likely will continue to incorporate aspects of social media into religious outreach efforts even after physical distancing restrictions are lifted.

But sometimes, Schaick said, nothing beats IRL – in real life.

"I think social media is kind of like having plastic plants in the house," he said. "From a distance, they look good. And of course, they don't need to be watered so there's nothing to maintain."

But the rewards of caring for live plants are exponentially more satisfying, Schaick said. "Social media creates an illusion that we're having the meaningful connections our souls long for. And during this pandemic, even introverts have discovered their inherent need for actual social interactions, and the emptiness that comes with social media alone."

"People who used to think they were fine with just, you know, a good book and a comfortable chair are now saying, 'There's something missing in my life.' Humans are wired as social creatures. It's a piece of our DNA."

As the pandemic stretches into eight months and counting, more and more people are turning to social media as a substitute for risky in-person interactions. Facebook and other social media platforms have reported record use, compared to a year ago.

But is that always a good thing?

Social media "allows us to maintain connections with [far-flung] family members, and to reengage with people we may have lost touch with," said Nancy Skopp, Ph.D., a research psychologist with the Defense Health Agency's Psychological Health Center of Excellence.

"Social media also may serve as a creative outlet, as a means of self-expression," she said. "It can impart a sense of belonging for some and promote offline interactions."

But Skopp also recognizes the potential harmful effects. She was lead author of a 2018 study of Facebook use among 166 active-duty U.S. service members deployed to Afghanistan. For all of social media's benefits, "It makes it easier for people to make social status comparisons," she said. "This could be a risk factor for anxiety and depression among vulnerable people."

Social media engagements also may lead to aggression and exposure to bullying, she said, noting a study that found almost 25% of Facebook users felt regret about something they posed online. Skopp also points to another study of social media that was conducted before the pandemic. It found that over the course of 10 days, greater everyday use of social media resulted in lower feelings of overall well-being.

"I don't think anyone can make a blanket statement that social media is good, or social media is bad," Skopp said. "It's all about how you use it," even in times when in-person interactions are considered too risky, health-wise.

So participating in an interactive event is more beneficial, she said, than "just sitting around and scrolling through social media posts. That can be a little demoralizing and contribute to negative feelings and moods."

Skopp also says there are benefits to using social media to remain active and engaged in hobbies or topics you really care about – or have always wanted to explore. "This can help increase feelings about positivity for the future," she said.

Researchers can't say for certain how much time engaged in social media is too much. But it's important to spend quality time off line. For example, "there's a very large body of literature attesting that a regular exercise regimen is extremely helpful for mood regulation and just overall long-term mental and physical health," Skopp said.

Schaick said he rides his bicycle regularly and also goes for runs and walks. "Exercise is important for me," he said. "But so is this idea of taking control of myself – there are a lot of things I can do even in this restricted environment." He and his wife have created a social bubble with another couple and "carefully and responsibly" spend time together on the weekends.

"I think it's going to be years before we fully understand the psychological and emotional impact of COVID-19," Schaick said. "But even though the news seems bad and discouraging, I'm absolutely certain that we're going to get through this. And we will emerge as better, more resilient people."

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