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A Note to Human Service Programs: You Can Still Build Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolation

Written by: Anita Brown-Graham

There is a cost to social isolation, and many of us have spent our first weeks of social distancing fighting against loneliness by using virtual platforms, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Webex, Talky.io, Facebook groups, and Instagram as our means of being together. We are working hard to minimize our sense of loss by trading in our usual face-to-face connections for virtual ones. We are finding ways to continue building and leveraging our social capital online.



Co-Authors: Maureen Berner, UNC SOG; Phillip Graham, RTI; Justin Landwehr, RTI; Brooklyn Mills, ncIMPACT

Let’s face it. Most of us crave human connections. They make our lives better in so many ways.

During this period of the COVID -19 pandemic, then, when we are doing our best to practice social distancing, many of us feel socially isolated. We miss our normal in-person connections. Students miss experiencing the interactions of in-person instruction, employees miss the water cooler conversations with their colleagues, and families and friends miss the dinners out on the town, the meet ups at the gym, and the hugs.

There is a cost to social isolation, and many of us have spent our first weeks of social distancing fighting against loneliness by using virtual platforms, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Webex, Talky.io, Facebook groups, and Instagram as our means of being together. We are working hard to minimize our sense of loss by trading in our usual face-to-face connections for virtual ones. We are finding ways to continue building and leveraging our social capital online.

We are not alone. Alcoholics Anonymous recently announced that it is moving its regular peer group meetings online. This causes us to wonder how other human service programs are using platforms and telephones to help their clients continue to build and leverage the social connections that may be critical to program success. The question is, “how do agencies help others build and leverage social connections at a time when physical interactions are so restricted?”  

Social connections can be critical for many human service program participants. The value that is derived from these connections is sometimes called “social capital,” and is an important resource in life – creating moments of positivity, supporting us through good times and bad, and exposing us to new ideas and people. When you cultivate healthy connections, research suggests you will enjoy a longer, happier, and more prosperous life as a result of the social capital created. This social capital can be accessed or mobilized to help you succeed in life by producing resources like information and emotional or financial support.

Remember the old adage, “it’s not just what you know, but who you know?” Well, there is research to prove this is true. The research on social capital suggests the key to building it is helping people to develop an increased sense of trust as they connect with other people, making it easier for them to work together. The more we connect with other people, then, the more we trust them and, the more we trust, the more we are able to effectively work together to reach shared goals. It turns out that this is true across different countries and across different states in the United States, as well as across individuals of intersecting group memberships. It is true irrespective of differences in education, age, income, race, and gender. People who are connected are people who trust. Even without the facial expressions, verbal cues, and nonverbal cues afforded in face-to-face connections, people can build trust through telephone and online interactions.

There is significant research on online activity, phone calls, and the creation of social capital. While some have argued that online actors have traded that medium for fewer face-to-face interactions and lower social capital, subsequent research has found that online and telephonic communications may actually have a positive effect on individuals’ social trust. The general assumption today is that patterns of online use is positively associated with individual-level production of social capital. This is an opportunity for human service agencies during the social distancing phase of COVID-19.

More Blogs in This Series

In the second installment in this series, A Note to Human Service Agencies: Think About What Type of Social Capital You Most Need to Build Online, we shared insights on different types of social capital and general principles that human service programs seeking to build social capital should consider.

In the third installment, A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19, we focused on three questions and corresponding practices:

  1. How and Where Will We Connect? – Use Peer Groups with a Facilitator to Engage Participants;
  2. How Will This Make a Difference? – Help Participants Build Quality and Meaningful Relationships
  3. Is What’s Yours Mine? – Tapping into Social Capital in Organizations to Increase Participant Social Capital

Finally, the fourth installment, A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolation, offers additional practical tools and frameworks for consideration.

 

Listen to the Podcast

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use.  Click here to hear more thoughts from a podcast about Social Capital from ncIMPACT’S director, Anita Brown-Graham, as part of a series of Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic from UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies.

 

The material for this blog series has been adapted from content based on: information gathered by engaging a panel of national experts for interviews and focus groups; conducting a national program scan of notable human services programs using social capital; visiting agencies in person, and writing in-depth case studies with selected programs, and augmented by research on virtual communities conducted by Anita Brown-Graham. The team responsible for that original content includes The Office of the Assistant Secretary to Planning and Evaluation at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, RTI International, and the ncIMPACT Initiative at the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. All images are stock photos. This does not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Health and Human Services. Nothing in this blog series should be construed as endorsing any company or platform.

 

3 Responses to “A Note to Human Service Programs: You Can Still Build Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolation”

  1. A Note to Human Service Agencies: Think About What Type of Social Capital You Most Need to Build Online - Facts that Matter

    […] the first installment of this blog series, A Note to Human Service Programs: You Can Still Build Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolati…, we noted that social connections can be critical to program outcomes for many human service […]

  2. A Note to Human Service Programs: Three Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19 - Facts that Matter

    […] the first installment of this blog series, A Note to Human Service Programs: You Can Still Build Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolati…, we shared the definition of social capital. In the second, A Note to Human Service Agencies: Think […]

  3. A Note to Human Service Programs: Four More Practices for Building Social Capital During COVID-19 - Facts that Matter

    […] the first installment of this blog series, A Note to Human Service Programs: You Can Still Build Social Connections in a Time of Social Isolati…, we shared the definition of social capital, insights on different types of social capital, and […]

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