Relationships and interactions are important aspects of how we define ourselves as human beings. Physical interactions and connections are a big part of forming these bonds.
But many people around the world have been forced to limit their physical contact and communication as part of the efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.
For some, this period may build better communication and interaction within nuclear families. But there are also concerns about its influence on people's relationships and interactions - their normal social functioning.
Similar concerns were raised when the internet first made its appearance in people's lives. Research conducted within the first decade of internet use mostly focused on its negative effects on people. For example, some research found that the internet increased users' depression and loneliness. It was described as an 'isolating medium'.
Added to these concerns has been the increasing rate of problematic internet use among young people. A study showed that young people can be so absorbed by social media that they do not connect physically and socially with the people around them.
One of the benefits produced by these bonds is "social capital". This has been defined as "goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit".
Another definition is "the links, shared values, social connectedness and understandings in the society that enables individuals and groups to trust each other and work together".
Some social capital has to do with bonding - having a sense of common identity. Other social capital is about bridging - creating links beyond common identity. Bonding is about deep connections, or quality, and bridging is about wide connections, or quantity.
Nigeria is one of the countries where the rapid rate of urbanisation and proliferation of internet use among adolescents and young people has already raised questions among researchers about the influence of internet use on their social relationships. One hypothesis is that participation in online interaction can displace physical interactions. With social distancing and greater internet use for pandemic communication, will young people build less social capital? And what would the consequences be?
As part of my PhD thesis, I did a study on how young adolescents in Ibadan, Nigeria's third largest city, measure social capital across family, friends, school and neighbourhood domains, both online and offline. The results showed that these young Nigerians built stronger bonds from offline interactions and more bridges from online interactions. But the online and offline worlds were connected to each other in important ways.
Social capital in Ibadan
My research involved a study among 1,200 adolescents in Ibadan.
Social capital was measured from both offline and online interactions. For offline interactions, the benefits of interactions within the family, peers, school and neighbourhood were measured. The benefits of interacting with family, peers, peers at school and being a part of an online group or community through social media platforms were measured for online interactions.
About 54% reported that they have the same friends offline and online. They rarely meet new people online. These individuals had significantly higher social capital scores than others who did not have the same friends online as offline. This shows the interdependence of the online and offline interaction among adolescents.
Adolescents who had high social capital scores from their offline relationships were more likely to enjoy a deep sense of social support (that is emotional support, access to limited resources, and connection to people with similar beliefs). Adolescents who had high scores from their online relationships were likely to feel more connected to a broad range of people, view themselves as being part of a broader community, and be more outward looking.
Being a part of an online community in itself comes with great benefits. Studies have shown that adolescents who participate in social media were most likely to be influenced into participating in civic and political activities, giving them a broader sense of belonging. Because online participation has the potential of providing an individual with a broader community and an opportunity to continue offline interactions, it does not necessarily replace offline interactions - it fosters them.
Adolescents who reported having similar friends online and offline enjoy the best of both worlds.
Other studies have shown that with the proliferation of internet use, the initial effects of isolation that were seen in earlier research have been lost, possibly because friends and families have all joined in communicating online.
So, online interactions do not necessarily replace or negate offline interactions. They complement each other.
Social interaction during COVID-19
There are more ways to have social relationships and generate social capital than simply by being together physically. I believe that social media is one of them.
The internet and social media have changed our communication styles and even language, but they have not reduced our communication. As my study suggests, online interaction can strengthen offline connections.
This stay-at-home period will surely prove the importance of the internet not just as an information tool, but as an essential part of our communication system in this new age. The earlier we embrace online interaction, the sooner we can reap the benefits it has for our relationships and development.
What people are experiencing under COVID-19 restrictions is not "social distancing" but "physical distancing". We can enjoy the benefits of relationships in this period as we could when we were able to meet physically.