For many, the thought of Zoom quizzes, dancing alone in the kitchen during online parties or sharing birthday dinners with relatives via a screen sends a shiver of PTSD down their spine.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world shut down and social souls missing their mates were forced to go cyber to find fun and connection, an entirely new generation of entertainment was born.
And it was more than just the odd game of bingo. There were virtual raves and dance parties, online happy hours with home delivered cocktails, remote potluck dinner parties, speed dating events, and even weddings.
It wasn’t the same. Most people had already spent a lot of the day on video calls and turning the laptop on again was unappealing.
But in a new world where they were robbed of social connection in every other way, it seemed a crucial lifeline.
However, researchers from Flinders University and the University of South Australia have discovered that while it might have seemed better than nothing, online socialising actually had no real impact on social connection or loneliness.
“We know in-person events such as festivals can bring about feelings of inclusion and create a sense of belonging and attachment to a place,” according to lead author and tourism and events expert Eliza Kitchen.
“It’s much more difficult to create and maintain social connections in an online environment and the opportunity is limited for attendees to expand beyond their current social circle.”
A poll cited in the study suggests more than 40 percent of Australians attended between one and three virtual gatherings in 2021, with music events, private parties, and online weddings most popular.
While the results show young people were strong participants, it was the older generation that felt the greater benefit.
People over 60 felt the most socially connected and the least lonely, compared to participants in their 20s. People not in romantic relationships felt the loneliest.
Despite these results, the researchers believe there is still a place for online connection.
“Virtual events have wider reach and increased accessibility, and this is especially true for conferences, learning events and concerts,” said UniSA senior lecturer in event and tourism management Sunny Son.
“Virtual events also offer a perceived level of safety as people can choose how they interact with others and how they express themselves.”
However, some experiences simply can’t be replicated online.
“Think, for example, of the experience of going to a farmers’ market or attending a sporting match. The things that engage our senses—the smell of freshly brewed coffee or electric atmosphere of a football game—are hard to replicate online,” said UniSA lecturer Julia Jones.
“In-person events also break down people’s daily routines and offer them a distraction and a chance to experience something different.”