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Four Science-backed Strategies for More Satisfying Social Connections During the Pandemic

Mental Health

We need a better way to support teens and young adults in their efforts to socialize safely during the pandemic.

How might we, as parents, caretakers, university professionals, on-campus support teams, and peers, start supporting teens and young adults in their efforts to socialize safely during the pandemic? It’s helpful to know that loneliness is an activated state—it’s an alarm bell in our brain that says our fundamental need for human connection is not satisfied until we take action. In that moment of need, the brain—and especially the adolescent brain—is not necessarily thinking first of safety; it is thinking first of connection-making, of fulfilling a primal need. As we provide support to young people navigating a COVID-19 world, we need to tap into our empathy and use the science of social connection to guide our approach to helping young people socialize safely.

At Hopelab, we have been working on a research-based approach to addressing youth loneliness for several years. In partnership with Grit Digital Health we created Nod, an app that equips students with skills to build a fulfilling social life in college. We are working to get Nod to as many students as possible, at no cost to them, by partnering with colleges and universities through an enterprise model. Nod is loaded with tips for building social connections, whether a student’s college experience is fully virtual, in-person, or a hybrid. Even with restrictions on socializing in place due to COVID-19, the following four tips can be shared with young people to help support building satisfying social connections in their lives.

Four science-backed social connection tips

1. Start with some self-compassion

Begin by acknowledging that the situation you’re in is hard, and that you’re experiencing suffering. self compassion It sounds straightforward, but we’re typically more inclined to do this for others than for ourselves. We tend to think, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” Acknowledging our hurt opens the possibility of responding with compassion. A great trick to get in this mindset is to ask yourself: what would I say to a friend or loved one in a similar situation? Take that inspiration and deliver yourself a dose of compassion. Now we can zoom out and appreciate that while it can feel like it at times, we are not alone in our suffering.

Ask yourself: what would I say to a friend or loved one in a similar situation?

2. Draw on your deeply held values 

When we’re trying to take on a new behavior that is hard, like maintaining a restrictive quarantine for 14 days or maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask, it can help to connect that to a higher-order value that is important to us. In a journal or on your phone, write down three to five values that are important to you. valuesExamples of values are things like learning, balance, relationships, unity, and self-respect. Now create two columns, one to write actions that you do that are aligned with your values, and a second to write actions that you do (or are tempted to do) that are not aligned with your values. This is a great exercise to help bring clarity when you’re making a decision about socializing that involves assessing risk; when you stop and look at what really matters to you, does this align or does it work against your values?

3. Connect with others through kindness 

There are lots of ways to interact socially, but some are especially reliable for boosting our mood and strengthening bonds. In the Nod app we provide lots of ideas to translate this into your life. Here are a few selections: 

  • Organize people to connect and help each other. Create a group chat to help people stay in touch, organize a food delivery to someone who is stuck in quarantine, invite classmates to a study group.
  • Seek out and invite people to a social event that is safe and in accordance with the guidelines in your area; this shows you care and are thinking of them. Maybe it’s a DJ live streaming on Twitch, a sound bath experience on Instagram, a sports event you can watch while chatting on Houseparty, a beach walk with masks, or a gaming session. 
  • Craft an awesome safe one-on-one hangout plan; people will appreciate you making the effort. Making plans in advance gives people a chance to plan for how to have fun while keeping an eye on safety. Maybe it’s badminton in the backyard in mini shorts and a mask, or a Zoom trivia night, or making sidewalk art to get out the vote.


4. Process your experiences

When we do get to connect with others, whether it’s virtual or in person, there’s a sort of comet tail that trails behind the interaction. Our internal dialogue kicks in and we start to evaluate how it went. Our interpretation can have a big impact on how we feel and what we believe about ourselves and our situation. In the Nod app we offer guided reflections to help students pause to savor positive social experiences or to process difficult ones. This can help us stay hopeful and motivated even when our social experience isn’t ideal (a state we’ve all experienced during the pandemic). Here are a few prompts you can try out: 


  • Get some perspective. Picture what your life will be like one, five, or 10 years in the future. From that new point of view, ask yourself, at each point in the future, how will I feel about this experience? How is that different from how I feel about it right now?
  • Give your mind a break. Do something good for your mind that feels rewarding. Need inspiration? Find a new thought-provoking podcast, practice meditation, play a game, draw or play music, hang up an inspirational picture.
  • Appreciate things that we can take for granted. Many people play a role in making our lives nicer. Those who grow and harvest our food, fix the roads, drive delivery vehicles, risk their lives to take care of our health, create art and music. Take a moment to focus on the many ways others contribute to our lives.

Think of these four tips as being part of a young person’s social life self-care toolkit. Practicing them can help maintain a level of social well-being that makes all of us, especially young people, less prone to resorting to risky socializing in order to get their needs met. Like most well-being activities, the impact increases the more these practices are part of our everyday routine. And because it can’t be said too many times, these times are hard, be kind to yourself, be kind to the young people in your lives, and let them know that they are not alone.  


Visit to learn more about Nod.


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