SOCIAL BRIDGES: UNITED BY DISTANCE

 

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The Social BRIDGES e-conference, hosted by the Institute of Psychology at the Bundeswehr University (University of the German Armed Forces) Munich, took place on 22-24 July 2020, bringing together over 40 speakers from 14 countries and a total of 38 research institutions who shared their findings on the influences of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, behaviour and psychology. The talks were made openly available to inquiring minds from all over the world with over 800 viewers across the three-day event. This, the first in a series of BRIDGES e-conferences, was initiated and translated into action by an organizing committee led by Prof. Merle Fairhurst (Chair of Biological Psychology Lab at the Institute for Psychology).

The COVID-19 global pandemic is reshaping social interactions and individual behaviour as we know them in multiple ways. It can act as a catalyst for changes that were already on the way before the Corona crisis, but sometimes whole areas of life are disrupted by it, so that the situation demands a drastic and intense search for new solutions. A closer look at the diverse impacts of COVID-19 on our professional, social and private lives reveals something in common: the deep appreciation for contact that has become visible in its absence as well as a need to find and establish new ways of keeping in touch. The active drive to reach out is also a defining aspect of the scientific community at large with a countless number of cross-country collaborations. Last, but not least: Aside from providing a unique way to stay connected and to rethink the boundaries of space and time, the online event format also reduces the carbon footprint of scientific exchange by limiting non-essential travel.

Explorations of the new normal

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, while a possible return to the social normality as it was known before is being repeatedly delayed, researchers are focusing on exploring and charting the new normal of life in lockdown and under social distancing conditions. The talk by Prof. Ophelia Deroy (LMU Munich) centred on the issue of establishing and following the new social norms; contrary to the belief that a threat pushes people towards anti-social attitudes, the pandemic, as well as other hazardous situations, evokes collaboration and social support as default reactions, Prof. Deroy said. The absence of touch, a crucial element of COVID-19 prevention measures, has accented its essential value in the private and social life of an individual, as shown in the research project presented by Prof. Fairhurst. The study about the lack of touch experienced in lockdown and the compensating rewarding behaviours such as eating, exercising or self-grooming was conducted in co-operation with the LMU Munich and Liverpool John Moores University. “One of the most interesting questions raised by the study was the fact that individuals were missing touch even if they were isolated together with their family members; this longing depends on getting (or not getting) the specific type of touch they crave”, Prof. Fairhurst said. The importance of touch for the development of children as well as behaviour of the adults was also the topic of the talk by Prof. Francis McGlone.

The toll of the global pandemic on mental health was one of the central topics of the event as experts provided deep insights regarding the situation in different countries. An international study presented by Dr. Valerie van Mulukom (Coventry University), involving participants from 12 countries, showed that the lockdown has led to a mental health crisis, affecting certain countries particularly (USA, Brazil, UK). The talk of Prof. Daniele Fallin (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) highlighted the challenges and solutions in the field of mental health during and after the pandemic, focusing on USA. The CV19Heroes project by Dr. Rachel Sumner (University of Gloucestershire) studied resilience, burnout and wellbeing in frontline workers, including medical staff and police, but also post and delivery drivers, supermarket workers and teachers.

 

How to make the best out of the worst?

Individual and collective coping strategies in the face of social isolation were addressed in a number of talks. Dr. Tim Loepthien (Bundeswehr University Munich) spoke about the use of different types of music for mood regulation depending on the current personal situation, and Dr. Jayanth Narayanan (National University of Singapore) presented his research on the impact of mindfulness on the quality of work and sleep during stress situations related to COVID-19. The phenomenon of the “balcony party” as an alternative form of social interaction was explored by Dr. Hila Gvirts (Ariel University). The talk of Dr. Laura Aymerich-Franch and Dr. Iliana Ferrer (Pompeu Fabra University) highlighted the role of new technologies in the fight against the virus by analysing the use of social robots during the pandemic as well as the new developments in the human-robot relationship which contribute to coping with the pandemic in multiple ways. A further modern development which could be an important support tool are use of the social media, bearing an effective telehealth platform potential, as proved by the research presented by Dr. Stephanie Godleski and Dr. Ammina Kothari (Rochester Institute of Technology).

The wide spectrum of the COVID-19 related topics covered at Social BRIDGES also included social issues such as stockpiling as a result of believing in conspiracy theories, presented by Hui Bai (University of Minnesota Twin Cities) and racist behaviour towards the Asian-American population in the USA, explored by Dr. Runjing Lu (University of Alberta).

The COVID-19 global pandemic, as in all of the difficult times throughout our history, is marked by changes and hardships an individual has little control over. And yet, what is certainly in our hands, is the means to find ways of coping with this situation and to make the best out of it; and just as Social BRIDGES at the Bundeswehr University Munich have shown, it is done best by joint efforts.

German version on the website of Institute for Psychology, Universität der Bundeswehr München