Living Online: Getting Social

See also: Social Skills

Socialising online can seldom be considered ideal. We all know the stereotypes of computer users who sit in their rooms all day, only interacting with people through their technology—and let’s face it, ‘social’ is not the first word that most of us would use for this group.

However, as the world locked down in the face of coronavirus in 2020, more and more people moved their social lives online. It turned out that socialising online might not be ideal, but it was better than nothing.

Around the world, drinks parties, quiz nights, discussion groups and family games nights went online. Funerals and weddings were streamed live to people unable to attend because of restrictions on numbers.

Socialising online may not be ideal. However, in the same way that speaking on the phone is more immediate and interactive than writing letters, so video socialising has advantages over phone calls.

This page discusses some of the benefits and drawbacks of socialising online, and explains what precautions you can and should take to stay safe.

Apps for socialising

There are a huge range of apps that can be used to facilitate social contact, some more ‘real time’ than others.

They include social networking apps like Facebook, instant messaging apps like WhatsApp and Messenger, and live chat and video-conferencing apps like Skype and Zoom. There is some overlap between these categories: for example, WhatsApp offers text messaging, live call and video call functions.

What they have in common is that they are all designed to allow you to communicate with people at a distance, and share pictures, videos, and chat either in person or via text.

These apps have revolutionised how we communicate. They have made it possible for grandparents and grandchildren to communicate at a distance—and anyone who has ever tried to get a toddler to use a telephone will understand how much that matters. They have enabled people to stay in touch with loved ones on the other side of the world. During lockdowns, they also meant that people living alone were not condemned to be isolated and lonely, and enabled groups of friends to continue to meet and chat, supporting mental wellness and happiness.

However, they are not ‘all good’.

Dangers of socialising online

First, there are security implications. What is online is (potentially, at least) there forever. If you share information, it may come back to haunt you, or be used to steal your identity. You do need to take some basic precautions to stay safe (and there is more about this in our page on Protecting Yourself in the Digital World).

Second, there are social implications. Many people complained during lockdown that it was not possible to ‘escape’ social interactions via video apps. When you had to ‘go out’ to meet people, you could plead a prior engagement, and so avoid situations or people you did not want to meet. When nobody was going out, what excuse was possible? Another Zoom call?

For those who were already spending much of their day online, it was hard to refuse politely—but that is what many people reportedly wanted to do.

This is linked to the ‘always on’ nature of social media. Without switching off your phone, it is hard to escape the notifications, and it can feel like you need to reply now to any message or comment.

Actually, of course, you don’t, and you can always say no to any invitation (see box).

Tips for managing the ‘always on’ nature of social media

  1. Switch off notifications for all but essential apps (for example, the app your partner uses to call you).

  2. Change your notifications so that you can identify messages from important contacts (your children or partner, for example). This will enable you to ignore other messages without worrying.

  3. Consider muting particular groups, either generally, or for specific periods. For example, if you have a very active family group on WhatsApp, you can mute it during the working day, and only check it in the evening.

  4. Turn off your phone (or at least mute it) at mealtimes and at night.

  5. Remember that you don’t have to reply to messages immediately. You don’t even have to see them immediately. You can even leave your phone in another room and check it later. People are unlikely to tell you anything really urgent via text or social media, and you really won’t have missed all that much.

Finally, if you want to, just say no. Real friends will not be offended, and those who are offended were not real friends.

There is another danger of social media, and that is bullying. This is a particular issue for young people, but it can also arise among adults. The ‘always on’ nature of social media makes it hard to switch off bullying. Children have reported feeling unable to switch off because they cannot face the prospect of coming back to hundreds of horrible comments.

It is worthwhile modelling ‘good’ social media and technology behaviour to children, such as switching off during meals, not constantly scrolling through social networking sites, and putting down the phone to speak to other people.

If bullying is an issue for you or someone in your family, it is also worth doing some work around assertiveness, and practising how to ignore hateful comments. You may also find our page on Cyberbullying helpful.

Social media and children

There are particular issues around children’s access to social media and social networks. All the issues and dangers that affect adults also affect children—with the added issue that young people’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, and therefore neither has their approach to risk.

It is therefore important that you talk to children about their social media use. You should set clear rules and boundaries—and then make sure that they are enforced. It is also advisable to show children how to report abuse, and where to go for help.

There is more about these issues in our pages on Social Media and Children and Safe Social Networking for Children.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the issue of hijacking of social media, especially video calls.

As the use of video calling software proliferated in spring 2020, several issues emerged around security. Many people did not realise the importance of controlling access to calls, and there were some widely publicised examples of calls being hijacked and pornography suddenly appearing on screens.

As with any app or software, it is important that you investigate and understand the security implications of using these apps.

Check what action you can take to keep yourself safe. Most of the main providers of these services have blogs and help pages that set out what you need to do and provide ‘best practice’. It is worth checking them out and making sure that you have taken action to keep yourself—and your data—safe.

Online dating

Genuine online dating did happen during lockdown. People did ‘meet for a drink’ via video conferencing apps such as Zoom. However, this cannot be said to have flourished, exactly.

Reports from around the world suggest that it was a poor substitute for face-to-face meetings.

Somehow, dating seems to lack a certain something without the potential for physical contact—even if it is only a hug and a kiss goodnight at the end of the evening.

However, dating facilitated by online interactions—that is, dating initiated through apps or websites—has been around for a while. In recent years, more and more people have outsourced finding potential partners to algorithms.

Apps and websites have proliferated, with many being highly specific. There are now apps for finding someone within the immediate vicinity, one-night stands, people who are already in relationships—or who want to date someone in a relationship—and people with an eye to a longer-term relationship. The language of online attraction, with its left and right swipes, is now widely understood.

When choosing a dating app, it is worth selecting your app or website for what you want to achieve. For example, Tinder is (reportedly) good for one-night stands, but not a great option for finding someone for walks in the country, and an ongoing relationship. Different apps have different audiences.

Warning! Usual rules apply

Whichever app or website you choose, there is one simple rule:

Always take precautions when meeting someone in real life whom you have only met online.

You have no idea who you are meeting based on their online profile. People can lie, and photographs may not be accurate.

Meet somewhere public, and ALWAYS have an escape plan.

And if you feel unsafe during the meeting, just walk away. Don’t worry about being polite, just say that you have to go, and leave.

There is more about this in our page on Dating and Dating Apps.

And finally…

Video calling apps and social networks have made the world smaller in many ways. They have enabled us to keep in touch with friends who are many miles away. Free long-distance communication means that we can be in contact with loved ones across continents and time zones.

Socialising online may not be ideal—but it is a lot better than not socialising at all.