Distance Without Isolation: Social Connectedness via Digital Platforms

June 7, 2016 | Erika Madison

faces of people connected in a toy representing a networkThroughout my life, and especially during my last pregnancy and the birth of my youngest son, I’ve experienced periods of physical isolation. I was put on light bed-rest for periods of my pregnancy, then I was alone in the hospital in the days following his birth, and of course, I experienced the sleepy, recuperative months of maternity leave.

With the eventual exception of my son, I was essentially physically alone. A lot. Being a fairly social and talkative person didn’t jive with so many days spent in my house instead of physically out in the world, interacting with my incredible TBG co-workers, or visiting friends. Even outside of pregnancy and newborns, being a parent juggling a preschooler, a job, and a house doesn’t allow for as many get-togethers with friends or frequent outings.

Most people, parents or not, have experienced times of physical isolation—many times associated with major events or life-changing circumstances. Frequently, these circumstances bring with them their own stressors—caregivers who are immersed in the care of their ill loved ones, people recuperating from illness, and sleepless new parents. Sometimes the distance is voluntary, like for people who live in rural areas or who work remotely for various reasons. Whatever the reason for an individual’s seclusion, the physical distance from others can obviously inhibit personal interactions that feed our human need for love, friendship and camaraderie, in other words, “social connectedness.”

Wikipedia defines social connectedness as:

Social connectedness is the measure of how people come together and interact. At an individual level, social connectedness involves the quality and number of connections one has with other people in a social circle of family, friends, and acquaintances.

I don’t have to tell you that the Internet is a game-changer for people experiencing periods of distance from others. I don’t just mean logistically, though my Amazon Prime, grocery delivery, and diapers.com accounts might tell you otherwise! With the proliferation of social media, messaging, and other digital platforms, humans are no more than an Internet connection and a few clicks away from fulfilling this basic need—to connect with other humans.

Internet strategists, designers, and developers bridge the physical gap by creating this line of communication to the outside world via platforms that make interactions consistent and easy. The technological backbone has to be strong and constantly evolving to meet the social requirements of our population. It plays a critical role in millions of peoples’ mental health and well-being, and I can now attest to its great power.

Online Chat Platforms: A Buddy System

My son was admitted to the NICU just hours after his birth, where he spent (thankfully only) 24 fretful hours under observation and treatment. Between visits to go and see him, my husband and I were glued to our phones, firing out updates to our friends and family to keep them abreast of the situation at all hours of the night. Even that morning before he was born, I found myself chatting online with a lifelong friend who had her baby just days before and who was also in the NICU at the same hospital. We were stressing. We were venting. We were joking. We were connecting.

Our Facebook Messenger chats continued later into the weeks of postnatal sleepiness, firing off messages and media into the wee hours of the morning as we cradled our newborns. We shared advice, poop emoticons, baby pictures, and whatever was on our minds. Knowing that you can send out a message to a close friend in the middle of the night and get a response within minutes or hours is like a security blanket. This one-on-one, intimate connection with someone else who knows what you’re going through—I can’t help but believe it got us through more than one stressful night with the rest of our families getting whatever rest they could until the morning came.

The [Search-Engine-Optimized] Mommy Blog Universe

First, let me say that this isn’t a “Mommy Blog.” I mean, I’m “Mommy.” Well, I’m writing a blog that’s about parenthood… So maybe this IS a Mommy Blog?!

This infographic, published by Mashable in 2012, estimated that there are almost 4,000,000 “Mommy Bloggers” online who are publishing blogs on everything from postpartum depression to homemade baby food. A similar universe of blogs exists in the world of caregivers and patients dealing with serious diseases, such as the personal blog-based websites on CaringBridge and fundraising sites like GoFundMe. In some cases, these blogs are like one-sided diaries, but in others they have created huge opportunities for interaction via commenting functions, media-sharing and cross-linking via social media channels.

Worldwide studies have examined the impact of being digitally connected and the stress of parenthood or caregiving. An article published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal studied the impacts of social networking and maternal stress. It states:

Findings suggested that frequency of blogging predicted feelings of connection to extended family and friends which then predicted perceptions of social support. This in turn predicted maternal well-being, as measured by marital satisfaction, couple conflict, parenting stress, and depression. In sum, blogging may improve new mothers’ well-being, as they feel more connected to the world outside their home through the Internet.

(This experience is exactly why I decided to write this post.)

I save time and gas money ordering my diapers and groceries online, and of course, that’s a stress reliever. And like I said, I’m not a “blogger,” but I interact with other moms, friends and family on a daily (nightly?) basis. I know these interactions give me perspective, validation, and avenues for expression and feedback that I wouldn’t have had 20 years ago.

While I’m not active on particular Mommy Blogs, I am lucky to be part of a Facebook Group that is comprised of thousands of local moms here in the Baltimore area. We share “you go girl”-sorts of validation and support, advice, and links to other online resources. Thanks to Facebook’s fairly robust search engine, I know to search the archives of posts to see if my questions have already been answered, and many times I’m able to navigate directly to a related comments thread to find the information that will get me through whatever sketchy parenting situation in which I find myself. They say, “It takes a village,” and I’ve got one–it just happens to be online.

The content from Mommy Blogs and parenting message boards is generally well-optimized for search engines via alt tags and good content structures, so I often find myself in the depths of an old thread in some far-flung board or blog I’ve never visited before. Kid’s got a funky rash? Do a Google image search and describe it and I promise you, you will find that a dozen other people have posted photos that looks just like it (yuck!) and have been through the same thing. In the middle of the night, those posts and the validation they bring definitely reduce the stress of the unknown.

The Digital Watercooler Effect

 As a project manager at TBG, much of my day is spent in meetings and otherwise collaborating with my fellow team members and company management. We’re working out tough issues on projects, keeping tasks on track and on time, and of course, joking and getting to know each other along the way. I’ve always felt a close personal connection with my co-workers, and those day-to-day interactions, while seemingly trivial, are critical in the success of a business and the services they provide their clients.

Before I was officially out on maternity leave, I found myself with the need to work from home due to some pregnancy-related issues. It would have been easy to feel disconnected from the team, even with our frequent phone calls and virtual meetings. It’s those in-between-the-meetings team interactions that strengthen understanding not only of the issues that need to be solved from a technical- or account-management perspective but of the people themselves.

At TBG, we do an excellent job of maintaining tight relationships with all employees who find themselves working remotely for whatever reason. You may have read our post in April that recommends Slack as an instant messaging platform.

I. LOVE. SLACK.

Between collaborating on project-related issues, we’re trading jokes, industry news, and new ideas. Even when I was off email during maternity leave, I logged in to Slack to check in on my co-workers/friends, say “Hi!” and be part of the conversation. It was fun. It was something I missed—having been shut in at home for those few months—and it kept me from feeling the void usually filled from the day-to-day camaraderie of our awesome office.

The Ties That Bind (Even From A Thousand Miles Away)

I have a very close family, though my brother, cousin, and their families live a few hundred miles away. We’ve all been lucky to grow our little families over the years and have found ourselves with a bunch of toddlers and babies at every holiday dinner.

Even though we make family gatherings a priority, having little kids means that the time to travel is a bit harder to come by. Back when we were in college and someone had to miss a holiday meal, we passed the phone around the dinner table. Now, we have platforms like Google Hangouts or Skype. And once the kids are big enough to interact, they get online too, giggling with grandparents and feeling connected—as they should be.

The beloved Carl Sagan once said:

For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.

Dr. Sagan was talking about the vastness of the universe, but all distances can feel psychologically vast, even if they’re not physically huge. Whether your feeling of vastness is temporary, brought on by medical conditions or life decisions that find us far-flung from our fellow man, or whether you’re in the depths of grief without someone close to relate to, or worried about, well, that funky rash I mentioned a few paragraphs ago… we are all so lucky to exist in an age of digital innovation that reduces that void. It makes this thing called life more than just bearable.

It’s more than a phone call or an email. It’s the ability to be constantly connected with other people out there, trading support and information, on platforms built and maintained by digital strategy and development teams. And I’m more than happy to be a part of it, whether I’m helping to create that technology with other TBG-ers or using it at 3AM.

About the Author

erika-avatar
Erika Madison

I’m a Senior Project Manager at TBG with 15 years of PM experience. In my spare time I’m a cat/toddler wrangler.


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