Editor’s Note: Eliza P. Shapiro is a senior in high school in New York. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN. Tune into CNN this Saturday at 7 p.m. ET for a two-hour special honoring the Class of 2020, featuring celebrities and former US presidents. More details here.
As a second semester high school senior, I was expecting a season of milestones, but not quite like this. A few weeks ago, I turned 18 – and celebrated my entrance into adulthood with friends and family on Zoom.
A few days later, I got into my first choice college – and videoed my reaction as I opened my virtual acceptance letter.
And a few days after that, I heard New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announce that all New York schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
So, I guess I’ll be spending my last weeks of high school in bed with my laptop, and I won’t be shaking my principal’s hand as he presents me with the diploma that symbolizes 13 years of my life.
These past few months of staying home and social distancing have been unusual, but also eye-opening. The people I am used to seeing in person every day are suddenly on my screens instead. People of all ages have been feeling a sense of dislocation and dependence on technology during this time, but my generation is in a unique position.
Many people assume Gen Zers prefer everyday interactions mediated by screens – we have been using modern technology since before we could walk, so naturally we would not be as affected by social distancing. Whether it be Snapchat, Facetime or TikTok, my age group had been actively choosing to communicate digitally long before Covid-19 forced us to.
But even if we are digital natives, the assumption that we are comfortable living a fully digital life is wrong. We value in-person interactions more than many may think. And now that this privilege has been taken from us, it’s just plain obvious.
Studies have shown that social interaction is beneficial to our physical and mental health, and that relationships are particularly important in adolescence. Social isolation, by contrast, has a negative impact on brain development and behavioral patterns – and can weaken communities and even our democracy.
These are not surprising facts. However, before this pandemic, many people my age thought we could fulfill this need for human connection by communicating with others online.
Clearly, we were mistaken. Being quarantined has affected the way I am feeling, behaving and sleeping, and my friends have told me they feel the same – more anxious, lonely and unhappy. Facetime, Zoom, iMessage and other forms of digital communication do not have the same effect as being with our friends and loved ones in person, or in a classroom with our teachers and classmates.
Going to school is hardly something we thought we would miss, having just gone through some key years of pressure and stress. But remote learning takes away much of what makes high school enjoyable and special. Although I am able to stay in touch with my close friends through technology, I don’t get the spontaneous, unplanned interactions that occur in real life.
In fact, one of the paradoxes of remote learning is how limiting it can be. In some ways, it makes it harder for me to get out of my comfort zone. There are people I might never have occasion to reach out to remotely, but still appreciate seeing on a daily basis – my favorite middle school teacher; a girl in my math class who helps me when I’m struggling; the friendly security guard who always gives me a high five.
It is this sense of serendipity that I miss, and which I now recognize is key to making kids my age feel noticed, supported and happy. School is about more than just learning in the classroom, and it seems impossible to get this feeling of community and sense of belonging online. Close your laptop and you’re alone again. This experience has made many of us realize how much we need school, not just an education.
As teenagers, we are going through pivotal life changes and learning how to form healthy relationships. We are figuring out who we are and who we want to surround ourselves with. Many high school seniors like me are going to college in the fall – we hope – and want to forge new friendships there to shape the next four years of our lives.
Many of us planned on meeting our new college peers at accepted students events, but those aren’t happening. Unfortunately, this means we’ll be more reliant on social media to make friends before we arrive at campus. Getting to know someone will consist of looking at their Facebook profile or having a quick text exchange – not exactly deep engagement or even all that spontaneous.
Not only might this make it harder for us to find our place, it may make us increasingly dependent on, and even consumed with, how we appear online. This is something we should steer away from, as over-reliance on social media has been shown to take a toll on a person’s happiness.
If what we take away from this experience is that in-person interaction is less necessary now that we are more comfortable with remote communication, we are learning the wrong lesson.
Although many of us can have school on video chat, and can have meetings over the phone and can binge-watch an entire Netflix series instead of talking to our friends, we shouldn’t.
We must not only return to our previous way of living, but place an even greater emphasis on community, real life engagement and the now rare pleasure of human interaction off a screen.