A few weeks ago (or maybe it was days — time means nothing to me anymore), a push notification on my phone alerted me that my friend had tagged me in her Instagram story. 

Given that I hadn’t seen her — or anyone besides my roommate — since I started self-isolating almost a month ago, I was curious as to what it could be. Since there were no new photos of us together, say on a night out or at dinner, I assumed it would be a “throwback” to a time before the coronavirus, where we were free to go out and dance and hug as we always did.

Instead, I was met with a chain message: “Draw a carrot! Tag five friends!” 

This was just the beginning of a range of “challenges” and chain messages that have popped up across different social media platforms, as everyone is — as Tyga and Curtis Roach so eloquently put it — bored in the house

As social distancing drags on, some adults are coping with viral Instagram challenges, chain emails, and gossiping about who is quarantining with whom. And, as has been widely discussed in the media already, many of them are even going back to their childhood homes to ride out the pandemic with their parents. 

But there are reasons these challenges are popping up that go well beyond boredom. It feels like we’re all in high school again, a time in our lives where we didn’t have the autonomy to go where we want when we want. 

It feels like we’re all in high school again, a time in our lives where we didn’t have the autonomy to go where we want when we want. 

Another way of saying autonomy is control, and we’re all experiencing a loss of control right now. That may be one reason why we’re putting photos on Instagram “until tomorrow.”

“It’s important to have control over our lives,” said Dr. Katherine M. Hertlein, a professor with the couple and family therapy program within the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ School of Medicine. “And when we don’t, we have to find ways to have control.” In an interview with Mashable, Hertlein compared what adults could be feeling now to the lack of control one feels like an adolescent, a period of discovery and figuring out what you do and do not have control over. 

Hertlein believes these trending challenges and the like are ways that we can establish some control while maintaining being social in a time of isolation; rather than call it “social distancing,” she called it “physical distancing” — because folks who are spending hours on social media are still being social.

Our pull to social media can also be a form of social contagion according to Chris Kearney, a child psychologist and chair of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s psychology department. Social contagion, also known as behavioral contagion, refers to the inclination people feel to imitate other people’s behavior and conform to the group. It’s one reason behind the panic to buy toilet paper, and, in this instance, the urge to participate in viral challenges. 

Besides feeling compelled to copy others, there’s an element of nostalgia that goes into these behaviors. It’s akin to reaching out to exes. People may find themselves interacting with others online who they haven’t spoken to in years — say friends from high school — which can lead to relating them in those previous contexts. “The dynamic hasn’t necessarily changed… you still kind of get caught up in some of the same things,” said Hertlein. “There is a dynamic that sort of brings us back to how we used to be.” Say, gossiping with the people you gossiped with years ago. 

It’s common that adults feel like they “revert” back to an old personality when they’re with old friends or their parents, said Viktor Sander, a counselor at SocialPro. “It’s possible that living a more restricted lifestyle that reminds us of our upbringing can affect our personality in a similar way.”

And many people are with their parents in the homes or at least towns they grew up in. When someone is in crisis — and not only are many individuals in crisis right now but nations as a whole — they want to be around others who will support and protect them, said Kearney. “You want to be around people that you trust,” said Kearney, “that are going to be able to provide for you and you’re going to be able to provide for the — sort of a natural instinctual urge for humans.” 

As a result, some adults find themselves in their childhood bedrooms — and amid the boredom and anxiety, find themselves sending chain emails for poetry. 

An example of a chain email "that serves as an uplifting exchange."
An example of a chain email “that serves as an uplifting exchange.”

But changing your environment goes back to gaining a sense of control during a moment when some may feel hopeless. We’re going to take back control “whether we like it or not,” according to Hertlein — but “we want to make sure that we’re taking control in ways that are adaptive and helpful.” Learning a new TikTok dance? That could be helpful. Gossiping to the point of trolling, or scrolling through Twitter for hours to numb yourself? Not so helpful. 

Whether we’re stuck in our childhood homes or elsewhere, we all may be reverting to our teenage years a little bit.  The challenges and emails are not inherently bad, but we have to look at the motivations behind them and behind our abundant social media usage, said Hertlein. 

The behaviors may all look the same, but it’s the reasoning behind it that matters. Using it as a form of escapism is problematic, according to Hertlein, because you are not dealing with your emotions. “If you’re tending to use technology because you’re bored and want some social connection, that’s a different story,” she said. 

What’s more, is that this will last forever — neither the pandemic nor our behavior related to it. “When the quarantine ends,” said Sander, “it’s likely that our personality goes back to normal, given that we take up our old habits.” 

For now, we have viral challenges and TikTok. Don’t forget to tag your friends. 

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