A Case for Community in COVID-19

by Joseph Oh | SQ Blogger | SQ Online 2020-2021

Future Music Festival 2013, image is unrelated to article. (Source)

“You’ve just stopped being a study group. You have become something unstoppable. I hereby pronounce you a Community.”

The iconic line, said by Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) in the NBC hit show “Community,” establishes a grandiose moment to impress the fake study group Jeff put together in an elaborate scheme to seduce Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), a struggling student now in Jeff’s study group.

What is it about that particular line that gives us a warm feeling? Although Jeff Winger is a skilled artist in sweet spoken words, perhaps it is the human longing and need to be part of a community. 

Even in our busy and possibly withdrawn college lives, the sense of community spirit is vital to how we function. We form study groups, friend groups, social clubs, cliques, and oftentimes go out of our way to form new groups at social events or cheer for our school’s sports teams to attain this sense of community.

However, COVID-19 drastically changed our community relations. Since self-quarantine and shutdowns began across the world in March, we’ve resorted to individual activities. Our isolation from various communities and our attempts to reconnect through virtual media strained the global network, as video streaming increased 12%, network usage through gaming rose 75%, and parts of Europe had to throttle streaming video quality to relieve the vast amount of users who had been looking for self-entertainment in a time of separation. In one way or another, living isolated from our communities has become easier as we’ve endured the pandemic since early March with the Internet at our fingertips.

It is truly a time of bliss for introverts like me, who dread social interactions. However, even I began to yearn for some kind of human contact outside of my family, who I had been confined with since the start of quarantine in March. Then, I began to wonder as I stirred into my dalgona coffee: are we wired to search for communities? Are there actual benefits attributed to co-existing with others?

The need for community stretches into our basic cognitive functions, as Drs. Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen wrote “the need for social belonging – for seeing oneself as socially connected – is a basic human motivation.” Humans are social learners, as psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed:  we learn our own identities and gain comfort through interaction with others, especially at developing ages. Oftentimes research shows we also depend on these groups to feel less stressed in potentially stressful situations, and endure hardships with the bond of the community. 

Experiments testing associations between race and standardized test results were used to prove these relations. When African American students were led to believe that fewer African Americans succeed in academics, they performed significantly worse on tests than students who believed their group was successful. The stressor of associating a student with “less success” was overcome by these group dynamics, even if that particular group is not present with the test takers. Just by having a belief that they are amongst those will do well, made a significant impact on the students’ performance.

Such examples of synergy also appear in the correlation of higher high school retention rates when a teen joins extracurricular activities with another friend or if they have a meaningful relationship with a faculty member. From a psychological and statistical point of view, it appears that the power of having community allows individuals to overcome challenges that would otherwise inhibit their chances of success. Observed from these psychological and sociological angles, the case for belonging to a community implores people to have social belonging somewhere to battle through struggles and achieve success.

These psychological behaviors manifest themselves in brain activities. Prolonged isolation and loneliness affects the brain in significant ways by altering hormone levels, specifically cortisol, a kind of stress hormone. Dr. Naomi Eisenberger, a social psychologist, reveals that prolonged cortisol levels caused by stress in social connections can cause an underperformance of the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain in charge of personality expression, social interaction and decision making, thereby implicitly affecting our identity as a whole. Prolonged cortisol levels also leave lasting effects on different parts of the body, such as an increased risk of heart attack. As mentioned previously, humans are social learners, even down to our molecular level.

It seems like being part of a community has pretty significant results in our well-being. So what can we do in our current quarantined state to fulfill this need?

Many students and adults alike already seem to have an answer to this: online video games! 

Blockeley University, UC Berkeley made from the popular game Minecraft. (Source)

As meeting together has become more difficult, many people have resorted to Local Access Network (LAN) parties held on various gaming platforms. These games are not only used to have fun with friends, but also to hold virtual graduations or even have team meetings in the unique settings and environments of in-game maps. This virtual platform provides users with the social interactions and even in some cases interactions with nature, which are harder to get while quarantined. Even some major news networks have covered online games as being beneficial, contrary to their statements years prior that the games hinder social abilities in children. 

UC San Diego and its various colleges also have come up with new ways for students to interact. Last quarter, Warren College offered incentives for students to participate in email and Zoom speed dates, and Revelle College held workout challenges in which students who completed a self-recorded exercise log would be entered in a raffle. Such programs facilitated by the school allow fresh opportunities to meet new people as well as earn a little prize for participating, all at the leisure of being home,.

Currently, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends social distancing rules, so I am all the more cautious to recommend meeting someone in person. However, at your own risk, CDC outlines social distancing rules of six feet while meeting with anyone outside of your household, and many states require covering one’s mouth and nose when in public places. Throughout the summer, I saw friends catching up with each other in their respective car trunks parked considerable distances away, and people having picnics in the park with their own food and separate blankets distanced from each other. In our own ways we were interacting with others, and although we are distanced from each other, the act of meeting together created opportunities for a recovery of cortisol levels, and restoration of our self-identification and social satisfaction during the public health crisis.

The era of COVID-19 is a difficult time for us all. Many people who we used to interact with are distanced further away from us. Despite the need for community and social interaction, let us never forget that we socially distance ourselves to protect our loved ones as well as their loved ones. Meanwhile, I will enjoy what I can get: visiting my friends’ islands on Animal Crossing and playing online Cards Against Humanity. Just because we are social-distancing, doesn’t mean we have to take out the “social” in all of us.


Sources

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