Teens forge new cultural meaning in online communities during pandemic

RV students find different ways to socialize during isolation


Riley Weller

Photo Illustration by Riley Weller

Sara Terwilliger and Riley Weller

The rage of the pandemic has been wreaking havoc on each American life, instilling loneliness amongst the isolated as the sickness spreads outside. People who have adapted to avoiding interaction and staying in are presumably prone to loneliness, yet many have found ways around the sadness of isolation. While many are not willing or able to see their friends in person, people are keeping in touch with the outside world through the internet. Online communities, such as those found on the communication application Discord, have been thriving since March when the first lockdown began. 

RV senior Gina Rotella attests to the happiness that can be found from online communities. She explained her love for Twitch group, the Dream Team, stating, “I found them through Tik Tok, which lead to Twitch, which lead to more discords and interacting with more communities. It was fulfilling to be interacting with so many people who shared my love for my favorite Twitch streamers.” She said that she found solace in online communities, building friendships based on her love for specific content creators.

The creators Rotella describes are known as “comfort streamers,” which she said are “streamers that you go to when you need a pick-me-up… they’re entertaining, funny and relatable,” are “TommyInnit, Dream and Eret.” She explained that these content creators were the source of her involvement in Discord communities where she has met and kept up with like-minded people who share her passion for Twitch, Minecraft and her favorite streamers. 

When prompted about how these communities have affected her life, Rotella said, “I feel happier… I found more interests, I guess. Before, I just went about my day doing nothing, but now I have a lot more interests and entertainment… my personality has improved… humor, speaking to people, stuff like that… it really changed me.” She notes that through her favorite Twitch streamers, she found their Discord servers where she made numerous meaningful connections and generally improved her quality of life. 

For teens like RV senior Ben Steinberg, the ongoing pandemic not only allowed him to create new online friendships, but solidify and strengthen the significance of those he already maintained. 

“Sure, I’ve made a handful of new friends over the months, but I’ve had a good chunk of online friends that I’ve kept for years. I was actually planning on visiting one of them a few states away before it became too unsafe.” He states that most of the relationships were formed on Discord, Tik Tok or online multiplayer games. 

“I used to talk to these people a lot, but after quarantine started I became really dependent on socializing with them,” Steinberg said. “We Snapchat through the day and talk on Discord at night. They are a genuine comfort to me, and what really helped my mental health during [the pandemic], as well as my ‘real life’ friends, who I talk to through the same applications anyways.” 

“I’m practically reliant on them emotionally, even though they’re so far away.” Steinberg said. Despite having chatted with these people for years, he is now almost certain that the relationships will be maintained for years to come. 

When asked about the possible dangers of online social networking, Steinberg said, “Online relationships are way too stigmatized. There is danger on the internet, but when you get down to it, it’s pretty hard to fake an identity for years, especially when you’re on video call all the time. When meeting up with people you have to be careful, but overall you’re going to find trustworthy and supportive people who you share common interests with. We should not be limited to those in our direct vicinity, especially during an ultra-limiting time.” 

Steinberg’s online experiences have proven to him that making these friends requires caution, but any demonization of the topic is uncalled for and only turns people away from the opportunities they might miss as long as they stay receptive of those they speak to. By turning teens away from the idea of making friends online, it limits their ability to form meaningful relationships and connections with those they may never have met otherwise. 

Despite the feedback from many teens, parents often continue to have concerns about their children’s social media usage and interactions. Most parents already dislike the amount of screen time that fills an adolescent’s days, and many are weary about the idea of online friendships. According to an interview on Today.com, one parent said, “We have a natural responsibility to protect our children… you magnify that with a whole set of anxiety-driven fears that are produced by the media. We think of all the horrible things that could happen with strangers.” 

The CDC and other sites such as ReachOut.com have supported an opposing viewpoint: even though screen time and stranger danger is a concern, online interactions are more beneficial than harmful to teens. Both sites recommend that teens connect friends, significant others, and family over video call, and with those they already know or join online groups with related interests and communities in order to maintain a healthy social life and benefit teens during the pandemic. 

“Being socially connected is very important for the continued psychological development of your child. And in this day and age, the online environment is where they get a lot of this.”  ReachOut.com stated before listing the benefits, including feeling less isolated, learning more about and keeping up to date with cultural and societal issues, and developing real world skills to help them become more independent. 

During a time of isolation and solitude, the internet and online servers such as Discord have become a safe haven for teens and adults alike to connect to real people across the globe. In lieu of the threat that Covid-19 poses and the worries of parents to those meeting up in person, these servers have not only allowed a safe space to socialize, but have given people a sense of normalcy and comfort to their daily routine. As the pandemic rages forward, these online communities and contacts have been and most likely will continue to be a source of relief for students everywhere looking to fill their social voids.