Social distancing limits the spread of Covid-19. But it is a double-edged sword. It also confined us to online learning, work from home and virtual meetings.
For adults as well as youths and young children, shaking hands and hugging, playing and eating together, watching movies with friends now belong to the past. The Observer spoke to students, teachers and experts to find out the impact of social distancing on the social skills of youngsters in a bubble of apps and social media.
Lubna Fatima Imran, an elementary school educator at Indian School Al Wadi Al Kabir (ISWK), says children have accustomed themselves to a world of computer-generated gaming so much so that it has changed their idea of the ‘real world.’
She says children as young as 10 years, now have online friends and play games with people whom they haven’t met or come across leaving them secluded in a ‘socially distanced bubble’ of their own. With ‘work from home’ the critical line that distinguishes the real from simulated is lost.
She explains that the “constant anxiety, fear and trauma of losing loved ones and financial instability in families during the pandemic has pushed a generation of adolescents into a world of ‘pretend.’ This means that the netizens may have numerous social media profiles whereby they may maintain a large circle of friends but they may not be close enough to understand each other’s thoughts, tastes, likes and dislikes. They may be pretending to portray a personality which could help them get acceptance among their peer group.
“Youngsters have not developed the real-world skills of face-to-face communication, a social skill that has been lost due to the digital world. Comparatively, this has been very easy to come by for the previous generations. Even though they are friends on Facebook they haven’t spoken nor met each other. They may be hesitant to approach or talk in person but are much more comfortable virtually.”
Mohammad Khuroo, a topper from Indian School Ghubra (ISG), suggests that though social distancing and online education might be the only solutions to tackle the pandemic, the situation can be made better by keeping separate classes for socialising and discussing topics with children. This, he says, increases interaction and the teachers can make the class livelier by using different strategies to engage children into schoolwork.
He further adds that though online has its advantages, it carries a plethora of problems which few generally address.
“Unless a child actively takes part in the class, social interactions with the teacher and his peers are shunned down to a minimum. The virtual platform is set up in such a way that the user can choose to interact in class. While some children might excel in this field, a majority of them end up deprived of social interaction and loose communication abilities.”
He also mentions that though governments and administrations have taken the tough step to switch to online instruction, with a strong will-power to succeed and a proper support system for children, online education can be made more fun and engaging than physical classes.
Deepa Harekad Krishna, an academic coordinator in English, at ISWK Primary Section, says that due to the pandemic, the children are forced to live in cocoons. “During childhood one needs to interact with their peers to acquire and enhance socialising skills. Though schools play an important role by conducting online classes, nothing can match in-person interaction. We need to remember that children are resilient, and with a little support they will bounce back’’, she says.
However, Deepa mentions that the pandemic has brought a paradigm shift in the lives of people, especially children. “The children are cooped up with their parents and their siblings in their houses. Their day starts and ends in one of the house rooms with a device and they see their classmates through tiny windows’’, she regrets.
Another ISG topper, Mohamed Zeeshan Shoukat Mukhari who passed with 98.4 per cent, feels that although apps like Zoom, Teams have been able to provide education virtually, they are unable to deliver it like in a physical classroom.
“No technology in the world can replace that feeling of being able to high-five your friends or eating together in the canteen.”
Social skills are very important to shape a student’s personality, he says but instead the students are indulging in online games and watching TV all day, hindering their personality growth.
“A school is every student’s second home and an integral part of a child’s life, a place where they have fun, meet amazing people who become friends for life and cultivate leadership and communication skills.”
However, Lubna sums up saying the very essence of introducing oneself, building a friendship or acquaintance and communicating has been replaced by a ‘block’ or an ‘unfriend’ option readily available on the social media interface.
Social distancing and the new normal associated with it, she says, is “sculpting a generation that will have a very different version of social skills in the ages to come.”