Ashlyn Gary

Young, Wild, and Quarantined

Insight
Mental Health

While technology has often been criticized for provoking our separation and loneliness, it may be a critical part of the solution

the tv screen flickers blue on my skin

the word COVID-19 echoes in my ears

as much as i try, i cannot socially distance myself from the virus

it injects itself into my conversations, my thoughts, my fears, my dreams

while quarantining in my childhood bedroom, 

i’m grateful for the refuge but feel suddenly stripped of my “adulthood” 

i struggle to envision who i want to be when surrounded by my old self

anxiety rushes over me as i witness the radical remapping of my social-economic-political world

craving escapism and a dose of humor, i plunge into the abyss of instagram

where my feed is saturated with peach-colored social slacktivism guides and WFH memes

addicted to distraction, time ticks away without a trace 

TikTok, TikTok, TikTok…

and suddenly, i’m notified that my screen time has gone up 40% this week 

time has slowly lost its shape like the melting clocks in Salvador Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory” 

but i try to find solace in the surrealism of life as i navigate the unexplainable aspects of existing 

and pause to reflect on what this all means 

i’ve learned that there are no simple answers, only questions, and constant flux  

We are all being affected by the hot, volcanic mess that is 2020, and teens and young adults are being stressed in unique and serious ways.

Physical distancing will have profound and far-reaching health consequences for this group, during a critically sensitive period where social interactions are vital to brain development, identity construction, and mental health. As a young adult, living in the midst of converging crises, I am coming to terms with a lot of uncomfortable realities. From navigating a world where Zoom breakout rooms may perpetually replace the spaces where I learn and work, a world where the feeling of warm moving bodies and thumping speakers at concerts don’t exist, to entering a job market in the face of one of the most damaged economies of our lifetimes—being a young adult in this era can feel disempowering and bleak. 

screenshot of a spotify playlist To maintain my sanity, I find myself having to develop new rituals and connect with friends in novel ways. During quarantine, I have re-learned how to wake up—stretching my limbs into eternity the moment I awake, gulping a glass of water, and blasting music that makes me want to dance and feel. In prioritizing connection with myself, I’ve been able to maintain connection with others. During this time, my friends and I create collaborative playlists on Spotify, we laugh during our awkward Zoom dinner dates, and we’ve now started cold calling each other to maintain the spontaneity we once felt when we could just visit each other without a virus ever crossing our minds.

In prioritizing connection with myself, I’ve been able to maintain connection with others.

At this point, hoping for things to go back to normal is wishful thinking, because COVID-19 has changed what “normal” means. It’s made us look differently at many structures that we’ve normalized, but which are definitely not normal—from for-profit healthcare, inequities among minority communities, and the prison industrial complex to how our screens have become our lifelines to the outside world, the news, and our relationships. 

While technology has often been criticized for provoking our separation and loneliness, it may be a critical part of the solution. For my generation, I believe that it has to be a part of the solution for overcoming loneliness. This year, I had the opportunity to work on the research and design for Nod, an app that integrates positive psychology, mindfulness-based self-compassion, and cognitive behavioral skill-building exercises to help college students strengthen existing relationships and forge new social connections. Nod uses technology to help you seek and feel meaningful social connections with others, as opposed to using technology as a mechanism for escape. Nod’s tools are designed to help you confront, embrace, and unpack the uncomfortable feelings associated with being vulnerable and socially putting yourself out there. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my research on Nod, it’s this: 

  1. Loneliness is a real and alarming health epidemic in college students, not just senior citizens. 
  2. Loneliness can be prevented. Not just by providing opportunities for social connection, but also by building the skills to deepen relationships. 
  3. Advancing social connection must be seen as a public health priority, and we must consider technology’s role in supporting this mission in order to meet young people where they are.
  4. Technology has become the portal through which we live, think, and interact, profoundly shaping how young people perceive and foster their social connections. As such, we need to consciously embed social and mental well-being as explicit goals for the design of tech products.  

Co-creation, the design process that empowers users to make products with you rather than just gathering people’s feedback, is essential to designing empathetic, relevant, and efficacious solutions. In order to design technology for loneliness prevention in college students, interventions must consider the specific features of this diverse population, and design solutions that are relevant to their day-to-day lives and ecosystems. This is why Nod is not just a resource guide assembled by researchers, but rather a tool that is co-developed with students, for students.

This is a critical turning point for technology and an opportunity to re-evaluate how we design for social connection. Now is the moment to catalyze a new approach to technology that helps young people thrive—a new normal where technology serves our fundamental human need for real and rich social connection, not a mere semblance of connection. It starts by asking ourselves, how do we cultivate better human relationships in person? How do we translate these ideas and goals into how we design technology?  

Ashlyn Gary

About Ashlyn

Ashlyn holds a Master of Science in Community Health & Prevention Research from Stanford University School of Medicine. Fusing human-centered design, behavioral science, and social justice, her mission is to build technologies that meaningfully and measurably improve health and well-being for vulnerable communities. She has been a research intern at Hopelab since January, working on research, strategy, and design for Nod


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