Racing out the door to attend an early meeting, I left my house only to realize that the pocket where I usually kept my phone was empty. I envisioned perfectly in my mind the exact spot on the mantle where my phone sat, but continued on. Surely I could make do for a day without it … couldn’t I? 

I decided I could. After all, I could get urgent messages through and few friends would text me anyway. What I did not anticipate was how much my eyes would be open now that I could not use it as a shield to protect me from having to notice.

I immediately found myself looking up more and observing the people, events and world around me. The problem was that while the “mistake” of leaving my phone at home improved the quality of my life, it was obvious that nobody else had committed the same error. Heads around me hung down, eyes never met, and voices were left unheard despite the oceans of people I waded through as I went from class to class. 

Many are wondering what will happen to their social interactions with the enforcement of social distancing measures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is worry of a “social recession” and greater loneliness in a world that has already identified loneliness as a dangerous epidemic. But social distancing did not start with COVID-19. Social distancing started long before the virus, spurred on by the use of social media and technology. My generation knows this. 

Jean Twenge, a college professor who studied loneliness and generations, found that teens have been increasingly becoming lonelier. This is likely due to them socializing less and less with others face to face. Compared to Generation X, Generation Z is getting together with friends less, going on fewer dates and attending less parties. This trend was found long before the increased social distancing paired with COVID-19.

Doing a study abroad program with limited internet use and cellphone access gave me a window into life without the cellphone culture of social isolation. But coming home was startling. I found that the people I would pass by on the streets were not as friendly as those I had come to know, and any efforts on my part to connect with others would go unnoticed as I would be ignored.

I found myself starting to fall into the habits of closing the door to my private room, studying or watching movies alone. Like everyone around me, a typical day means a life where social media and technology are powerful enforcers of social distancing from people all around us. Walking into the Wilkinson Student Center at Brigham Young University, I heat up my lunch and find a place where I can sit and watch a show or videos during my lunch, often as I sit next to others doing the same thing.

Sometimes I pass by someone that I know, or once knew, and want to say hi, but they don’t always have the same idea as me as they avoid contact. Perhaps its easiest for them to just to remain part of my Instagram feed. And in my mind I’m tempted to ask, what’s the point of knowing about their lives if I am not welcome in it?

Writing this now, I look and see a couple straight ahead, each person with a phone in hand, a mother and daughter on my left, also on their phones, a boy over two seats playing a video game on his phone, all people with experiences and troubles and worries and wisdom that I will likely never know about.

And I know that we continue to go down a path that substantial evidence suggests is “challenging our ability to make meaningful connections.” As communication expert Stacey Hanke explains, “the more people use digital communication, the more interpersonal communication skills decline.” How does this affect us? We are choosing the convenience of social media over the quality of connection.

This takes us toll on our emotional well-being. How long will we let this last? How can this change? Surely the coronavirus quarantine will not last forever, but once it stops, will we appreciate the privilege to go outside and talk to our neighbors? Will we start conversions with future best friends and spouses, and give hugs to those who are no longer 6 feet apart? Will I change?

Or maybe the next time I am racing out the door and realize I forgot my phone, I will turn around, for if I left it, who else would be conscious enough to communicate with me anyway? 

Kiahna Johnson is a junior at Brigham Young University earning her undergraduate degree in human development.