The past two years of the pandemic changed the manner in which young people interacted with each other in fundamental, life-altering ways.
From warm handshakes to cold screens, from group outings to Google meets, the coronavirus pandemic, that spread across the globe in the first five months of 2020, altered the nature of social interactions, perhaps forever. Schools started Zoom classes, universities moved online, WFH (Work from Home) became the new norm. The whole world turned virtual.
For Christianne Alemao, a 20-year-old BMS student from Mumbai, these virtual interactions took away her ability to socialize freely with people. “Everyone became so closed-off,” she said. “Before the pandemic, I didn’t really experience social anxiety, compared to what I felt during and after the pandemic.” For someone like her, a person who thrived off in-person and physical social interactions, virtual screens became a nightmare, reflecting a world of distance and superficial contact. “I was actually extroverted before, so I didn’t like the fact that we were so cooped up, and now I like being alone,” she added, when asked about how the pandemic impacted her.
She’s not the only individual who experienced a shift in their relationships with people. Jessica Borges, a 22-year-old customer care service employee from Mumbai said she missed hanging out with her close friends and socializing. The pandemic did not play a role in social anxiety, she said, but she felt “sandwiched between the distance and the isolation.” Somewhere along the way, relationships and friendships suffered fall-outs because of the distance, combined with the isolation.
On the other side of the spectrum, though, were people who liked being alone and for whom the social isolation was like ‘an introvert’s playground’ as counselling psychologist Rochelle Gomes aptly phrased it.
“The pandemic was a sad experience, but since everything moved online, it was a big relief for me. I could be myself online and no one would judge me,” said Mitali Gupta, a 22-year-old student who’s doing her Masters in Psychology from Amity University in Jaipur. “It’s like online, I am more of myself.”
For introverts, sitting at home and interacting with a screen instead of face-to-face communication felt like a dream come true. Many people even stopped going to therapy, insulating themselves in the comfort zones of their homes.
And then, reality hit.
When the ‘unlock’ stage of the pandemic was put in motion, both social and not-so-social people were suddenly faced with the ordeal of going out and facing other humans. “That was the ‘difficult phase’ of, say, 6-8 months of transitioning back to normal life,” said Life coach Ishita Kotiya from Delhi. “It took people a good 6-8 months to get back to normal.”
During that time, there was a rise in social anxiety cases. The combination of social isolation and restricted physical space had created a ‘bubble’ that insulated people away from the real world. Now, they suddenly had to go back to being ‘normal.’
For college students, it was the experience of meeting classmates in person that was the hardest to deal with. It was not only meeting strangers that was hard, but even talking to the people who were one’s closest friends. Counselling psychologist Rochelle Gomes said that for 18-19-year-old students who had never been to college in-person before, the experience of being in a physical classroom was awkward and fraught with anxiety. “They needed to be re-oriented and adjusted to offline college,” she said.
Christianne said that walking into a crowded classroom gave her severe feelings of anxiety. Mitali, on the other hand, said that physical interactions felt ‘alien’. “When I had to attend offline college, I felt as if I was dropped into an isolated space where everyone seemed alien to me. Crowded spaces, till date, give me anxiety, and I feel as if something bad is going to happen to me.” Jeswin Viegas, a 22-year-old content writer from Mumbai, developed a fear of crowded spaces only after the pandemic.
Another phenomenon also emerged, that of ‘hiding behind the mask.’ People who were experiencing social anxiety saw masks as a way of remaining inconspicuous while being physically present. Others, like Mitali, used a ‘social media mask’ to cope with anxiety, not only during the pandemic but throughout.
Life coach Kotiya says that social media provides young people with the option of creating an ‘alter-ego’, which is an online persona of themselves.
When the world started living, studying, and working online during the pandemic, young people, who are the largest demographic of social media users, found themselves deep in the throes of virtual existence. And for many of them, escaping the comforting confines of virtual life was extremely hard.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) comes under the spectrum of generalized anxiety disorders. It is not a new phenomenon in India. According to a 2017 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), social anxiety affects 38 million Indians. Much more recently, a study conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) of over 3 lakh students in the age group of 6-12 found that 81% of Indian students experience exam-related anxiety. Online classes and virtual interactions added to these woes. Apart from general anxiety disorders, which rose during the pandemic, people across age groups experienced PTSD, says Kotiya.
However, although all age groups experience anxiety, the prevalence of social anxiety among youth is much more, compared to other age groups. “Our culture is such, that we demand a lot of excellence,” Rochelle Gomes said. “A lot of stress is laid on the end result, rather than the process.”
According to Ishita Kotiya, in India people under 20 are more prone to social anxiety, compared to abroad, where people start visiting life coaches and counsellors after the age of 20-21. There are also city-wide differences within the country itself. “People from Bangalore have been reaching out more for personality development, skill development, transition from one job to another, or career change, compared to Delhi and Mumbai, where people have been reaching out for anxiety, stress, depression, all these things.” she stated.
For young people, it’s body image issues, examination pressures, the pressure of rejection, unresolved childhood trauma, and parental conflict that leads to social anxiety. There’s also the issue of reaching out for professional help. With young adults who are dependent on their parents, financial issues do come into play, as well as the stigma surrounding mental health. Due to social media, people are more open to reaching out, but it’s a slow process of change.
The people I spoke to all expressed hope that they would slowly overcome their social anxiety through therapy and small life changes. “I am satisfied with my social life. I have a limited circle of friends and people who I can call mine or my ‘close ones’,” said Mitali, who has been undergoing therapy for her social anxiety since she was young.
Christianne said she would have to work on getting rid of it, because it was impacting her life negatively. Meanwhile, Ishita Kotiya emphasized the need to increase awareness about mental health in India. “As people, we don’t understand that somebody must be going through social anxiety and that is why they’re cancelling plans, that is why they’re not meeting their friends,” she said. “It’s because they’re anxious, and they don’t even know it.”
- Adani-Hindenburg Clash: What is the Real Story? - March 17, 2023
- Wake up with the birds, if you want to see them - January 13, 2023
- A Youth Sandwiched Between Distance and Isolation - October 20, 2022