Zoom is not the same: Students face loss of physical interaction during HM Online


Emma Colacino and Mia Calzolaio


“I philosophically believe that human contact is important for the vast majority of people in the world,” school psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil said regarding the importance of physical interaction. “There are probably biological and evolutionary reasons for that reality.” 


In the third week of HM Online, many students are still adjusting to the drastic changes of switching to online learning and being in self-quarantine. While this transition alone might cause difficulties, many students are also being affected by a lack of physical interaction with their friends, which used to be a constant in their learning environment. 


Many high school relationships involve physical interaction between friends. “The nature of so many friendships in high school is physical,” school psychologist Dr. Liz Westphal said. “There’s a lot of humor and nudging each other; that’s part of the friendship.” 


“My friends and I tend to take the subway together a lot, we hug and we give each other piggyback rides and stuff like that,” Jordan Ferdman (11) said. “I guess I didn’t realize how essential they were and how defining they were for our friendships.” 


The familiarity between Ferdman and her friends allows them to show their affection for each other physically, she said. “I think that’s the product of a lot of time together and understanding of respective boundaries and needs,” she said.


Scientifically speaking, physical touch has profound impacts on human health and happiness. When a person experiences a positive touch, pressure receptors under the skin send a signal to a group of nerves located in the brain called the vagus nerve. This nerve is connected to several major organs in the body including the heart and several parts of the digestive system, according to an NPR article describing the importance of physical touch in human connection.


Physical touch can be associated with a lowering of the heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a release of the hormone oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone.” It has also been found that hand holding or hugging can lower cortisol levels, the stress hormone, according to the same NPR article. Essentially, positive touch can be attributed to feelings of devotion, trust, and bonding. 


“I wouldn’t say I’m unhappy, but I think physical touch does make me feel more comfortable, makes me feel happier,” Chris Ha (12) said. Ha misses doing things with his friends that require them to leave the house, like playing basketball and going out, he said.


Ailill Walsh (10) has noticed his mental health and happiness decrease as a result of the lack of physical interaction with friends, he said. “My friends and I often go out to eat, we really like walking around the city a lot, meeting up to go play basketball, and hanging out at people’s houses,” he said. 


This lack of in-person communication with friends can cause some to feel a sense of isolation. “I think we probably have a lot of people in the community who are feeling more isolated than they do when they’re in the actual building in the physical space with other people,” Westphal said.


While students are unable to be in the physical presence of one another, many have turned to communicating online, over platforms such as FaceTime and Zoom, to stay connected with their friends. “It’s completely vital and important for people to have physical contact with other people in our world, and those are being shut off during this time, instead what we have with screens is sort of an imagined contact,” Pervil said. 


To many, FaceTime does not completely replace the physical interaction of friends. “I feel like even if you’re talking over FaceTime, there’s still body language cues that you’re missing,” Ha said. 


“It’s harder to have direct eye contact and real conversation over FaceTime,” Jared Contant (9) said. Without direct eye contact it is difficult to stay engaged with the people you are talking to, he said. 


Maintaining friendships over FaceTime can cause them to feel different than in-person. “Friendships may feel less fulfilling in the absence of that physical give-and-take and back-and-forth,” Westphal said. 


Similarly, communications without physical interaction may not feel authentic when they are over a screen, Walsh said. “You’re not able to have the same level of connection, you’re not bonding over things you do together, you’re not really discussing things in depth,” Contant said.  


“I feel like it’s much easier to have a wholesome conversation and to open up to someone when you’re in person,” Walsh said.


When students are unable to interact physically, conversations may also feel unnatural. “I think it’s probably one of the things that people actually miss a lot is just being able to have that natural flow of interaction with each other,” Library Department Chair Caroline Bartels said.


The lack of physical interaction between friends in school may cause some to feel that their relationships have become less close. “In a lot of friendships, you’re not close enough to FaceTime each other, so I feel like those friendships are going to deteriorate a little bit,” Sarene Choudhury (9) said. 


“Having this much time off and not being in school can weaken friendships, and sometimes that can be a sad reality,” Walsh said. 


Justin Burrell (10) is not communicating with the people he only sees in school, he said. 


 “[There are] tangential relationships that happen just out of happenstance because two people are in a class together,” Bartels said. “I don’t think that’s really there anymore.” 


Additionally, some students are more comfortable reaching out to friends through platforms like FaceTime and Zoom while others are more hesitant to use these platforms.

Some aim to contact their friends every day. “I do try to make an effort to talk to people daily, and I do make an effort to have group FaceTimes at least once or twice a week,” Walsh said. 


However, others may feel less motivated to connect with peers. “It’s harder to reach out, because I feel less motivated to actually FaceTime someone or call when I’m laying in bed, so I see my friends less because of that already,” Choudhury said.


In addition, some students may also feel more anxious about connecting with peers over FaceTime than in person. “Some people are very outgoing and it’s not hard at all for them to start up a conversation on text, or set up a Zoom meeting,” Westphal said. “But there are definitely a lot of people who are more anxious in social situations, or are more reliant on physical presence to prompt interaction.”


On the other hand, there are also individuals who feel comfortable reaching out to friends through online platforms. “Some people are really great initiators of conversation, and these formats of scheduling a Zoom meeting or talking to your friends on FaceTime or sending snaps or making a Tik Tok, all these things may lend themselves particularly well to people who are self-driven at initiating in terms of social connection,” Pervil said. 


People who feel more anxious at initiating in-person conversations may benefit from an online format. “It can be a huge and wonderful relief for a lot of people who are very anxious, and so it provides them with ways of communicating that are less anxiety provoking than seeing someone face to face,” Pervil said.  


For many students, it is difficult to find a positive take on the situation. “At the end of the day, nothing’s going to compare to when you’re in person with your friends or groups of people,” Walsh said.


Each person will be affected by the changes occuring in the world differently, Pervil said. “There’s no right way to respond to what’s going on, so you can’t possibly be doing it wrong, and what’s going on in our world is going to affect each person differently,” he said.