At exactly 5pm on a hump day early in self-quarantine, I shut my laptop, rose from my kitchen table, and snagged a bottle of Bulleit from the shelf. I plucked a friend’s gift—a whiskey glass that features Mt. Rainier topographically blown into its base—from a cabinet and filled it to the peak with bourbon. Then I grabbed my phone. A few taps and scrolls later, I was toasting that gracious pal and a handful of other high school friends on a coordinated virtual happy hour call.
With in-house dining service curtailed under governor Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have been forced to recreate that “it’s five o’clock somewhere” vibe by imbibing with others via video chat. Whether they’re held on Zoom or Houseparty or FaceTime, these digital gatherings with friends and coworkers have, for some, infused a dash of fun into quarantine’s novel cocktail of loneliness, isolation, and depression. That doesn’t mean they feel normal. Our apps swap out tables and stools for two-dimensional shapes that may or may not fit everyone’s head (know your angles, people), and missed connections now evoke poor Wi-Fi signals rather than failures to exchange digits.
Yet, video cocktail hours can be beneficial for those who normally enjoy reveling in a post-work pint with their best friend or Bob From Sales, according to Jonathan Kanter, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Washington. “If you were the kind of person who looked forward to Friday evenings, going out to happy hour with your friends,” says Kanter, “to the extent that you can recreate [that] in any way possible, such that the loss isn't complete, that's really important for staving off depression right now."
While no studies have measured the effects of these video happy hours quite yet (stay tuned, though), some previous research related to remote socializing suggests that they’re indeed worthwhile. A longitudinal study in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry assessed the impact of different technologies on older adults’ likelihood of developing depressive symptoms. “Using Skype to Beat the Blues” found that, in a nationally representative cohort, “users of video chat had approximately half the probability of depressive symptoms at two-year follow-up compared to non-users and users of email, social media, and instant messaging.” And frequently hospitalized children with chronic illnesses have used video chats to preserve connections with peers and adjust to their "new normal."
But how do the benefits of those Skype sessions compare to the social rewards of in-real-life meetups? Most studies suggest that you can’t totally refashion the experience of clinking glasses and sitting across from someone because, in that situation, all of your senses are engaged. Video chats also differ because they often feature feedback, or the ability to see your own picture on the screen. That can lead to heightened self-awareness and greater "anxiety-related words," according to one study.
Still, of any mass-adopted social technology, group video mimics in-person gatherings the closest due to its blend of audio and visual emotional cues. In “The Effects of Text, Audio, Video, and In-Person Communication on Bonding Between Friends,” academics from two California schools found that bonding among existing friends differed significantly based on their modes of communication. The greatest connection, predictably, came through in-person interactions. But video chat (Skype-ing, in this case) came in second, followed by audio conversations and instant messaging. Caveats apply—the participants were all college-aged and female—but according to Jonathan Kanter, the study’s results jive with common sense: “the closer to live interaction, the better.”
Kanter and other UW researchers have been checking in with 500 King County residents every night to capture their responses to the pandemic, which have been varied but perhaps less discouraging than one might imagine. “Our data suggests that most people are doing fine,” he says. On the other hand, some people’s alcohol use, depression, anxiety, and loneliness are “up in concerning ways.” Kanter worries about the sudden losses of meaning, reward, and social connection in those folks’ lives. “When we lose this stuff, we get depressed,” he says.
Unlike extroverts, introverts may find comfort in our current socially distanced circumstances. “There are those people out there too who are probably dreading the return to normal work conditions," Kanter says. Those individuals may not necessarily seek out video chats. And when it comes to virtual happy hour, some people, introverted or not, just aren’t all that into the crosstalk and margaritas.
Kanter counts himself among them. Instead, he’s found other ways to connect through video chat. His family has shared dinner with another family by stream, sitting down in their homes with the same meal. Witnessing remote Easter and Passover celebrations has also lifted Kanter’s spirits; he encourages people to connect their laptops to larger TV screens if at all possible, amplifying the audio and visual effects that intensify what some researchers call video’s “affective bandwidth,” or emotional transference.
For Kanter, who has spent most of his career preaching the benefits of social connection and closeness, it’s been pleasing to observe people adapt to our new social reality. “I don't want to minimize the horrors of what's happening right now, but in [the social adaptation] sense, it's been wonderful to watch people just really yearning for connection and seeking it in all these beautiful ways.”