From empathetic emojis to Zoom bar mitzvahs, these are the positive virtual connections we need

In a time when there are higher rates of anxiety and depression due to isolation, adding empathy to our digital communication is essential.


Related video above: Tips to get most out of Zoom, Skype video calls, meetings

On New Year's Eve, more than 1 million people from around the world gathered in Times Square to ring in 2020. It was a moment full of hope, optimism ... and crowds.

Fast-forward to today, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's difficult to even know when live events and larger mass gatherings may return to normal, according to CDC spokesperson Kate Grusich.

But humans rely on social connections for our mental and physical health. According to a Brigham Young University study, the lack of social relationships have as much of an impact on our bodies as high-risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. In short, lack of social relationships can lead to an early death.

"Social distancing and isolation can be a lonely experience, and fear and anxiety about the outbreak may be extremely stressful for some people," Grusich said.

But, she added, "fortunately, technology today allows for virtual communication, which can help people feel less alone and isolated."

Here's how humans are pushing our communication forward to celebrate, connect and come together while apart, in some of the ways we need most.

Emoji add empathy to digital conversations

In a time when there are higher rates of anxiety and depression due to isolation, adding empathy to our digital communication is essential.

"I believe emoji help us share the emotions that are often unseen in online communication," said Steven Sams, who wrote a doctoral thesis on English and rhetoric at Georgia State University. "Social distancing is making us recognize our need for human interaction, and emoji make digital conversations more human."

Facebook announced a new care emoji to its reaction lineup as a way to express caring and solidarity.

There's been a shift in which emoji are being used during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jeremy Burge, chief emoji officer at Emojipedia, an emoji reference website.

Emojipedia in March conducted an analysis of nearly 50,000 tweets. The data indicated that the face with medical mask and microbe emojis showed the highest percentage of usage in conjunction with the words "coronavirus" or "Covid."

"While we don't all have to be emoji fanatics, knowing how to communicate clearly online is in all of our best interests right now," Burge said.

It's also no surprise that people can't get enough of the folded hands emoji right now.

Facebook Live is bigger than any concert venue

More than 15,000 people tuned in to Facebook Live for a tour of The Neon Museum's "Lost Vegas" exhibit — the largest viewership ever for the museum.

Dawn Merritt, vice president and chief marketing officer for The Neon Museum, said this decision may be the new wave of the future.

"Adding a digital option allows museums to engage in ways they never have before with an audience that they may not have been reaching," she expressed. "We can't have on-site visitors but we can still reach folks from around the world from the comfort of their couch."

Museums aren't alone. Live music is also finding a new normal as far as connecting with fans.

Yacht Rock Revue, a 1970s crooner band whose recent album "Hot Dads in Tight Jeans" made the Billboard music charts, is also going digital. Frontman Nicholas Niespodziani said, "My life's work is bringing people together and making them smile. [It] is built on that premise, and the impossibility of that makes me feel completely untethered."

So the band created Yacht Rock Thursdays, where they perform on Facebook Live. Although the band is getting upward of 50,000 views, Niespodziani felt it still couldn't compare to a live show.

"Nothing we're doing right now can replace a bunch of people in a room together singing the chorus to 'Africa' at the top of their lungs. It's like suggesting porn will replace sex — never gonna happen."

And yet, bands can reach thousands more audience members online than any venue can hold.

The Indigo Girls have turned to Facebook and Instagram Live to perform stay-at-home concerts. Over 500,000 people viewed their video. A mega stadium holds 70,000 people on average. So even with the largest of concert venues, the duo has over seven times the reach performing online.

Humor in a time of helplessness

Laughter is essential to combat stress. In a very small 2004 study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 10 adult men were randomly assigned to either one hour of laughter or quiet time. Based on blood samples collected, the control group showed no change, while the laughter group showed a decrease in serum cortisol, dopac, epinephrine and growth hormone levels — these hormones trigger the areas of our brain that control our stress response.

What happens when the places most ripe for comedy and personal connection are shut down?

Comedy clubs have taken a huge hit during the coronavirus. When seating is intimate, it's hard to enforce social distancing.

Comedians are relying on virtual comedy shows as a vehicle for spreading humor.

"You know the saying, 'You laugh to keep from crying?' That's how important humor is right now," said comedian Mia Jackson, who has performed on Comedy Central. "Nothing beats performing stand-up in a live venue. Digital and online performances aren't ideal, but as a comedian who's missing the stage, it's what's available right now if I want to perform."

Comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known for her role in Fox's "24" and FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" has launched "This Just In," a humorous news show on Instagram Live. "Right now, it's sad and strange to do all of this online," she said. "On the other hand, for my news show, it's perfect ... so maybe it's just about a learning curve and adjusting to change. Change that is hard but good."

A room with a Zoom

Due to isolation, grandparents and grade school kids alike have become experts in video chatting. Zoom has now become the virtual epicenter to connect and celebrate birthdays and bar mitzvahs, weddings and graduations.

"To date 300 million average daily participants — nearly the entire U.S. population — are living their lives on Zoom," said Janine Pelosi, the company's chief marketing officer. "They're celebrating, mourning, entertaining, learning, dating, fundraising, giving birth and adopting children, conducting business and more on Zoom."

One company that has adopted Zoom is Point Source Youth, a nonprofit group dedicated to ending youth homelessness. Larry Cohen, co-founder and executive director of Point Source Youth, said his company once relied heavily on travel.

Now all that has changed. "People expect the warmth of a handshake to indicate you are celebrating their value," Cohen said. "Showing up in person was evidence of care. Now we are using digital tools like Zoom to show that same evidence."

Texting, social media and video also keep us connected to the news and information we need right now, too.

Travel companies such as Delta Air Lines have turned heavily to social media to keep their customers informed in a time where there is much uncertainty about the future of travel. Delta has also boosted communications on its Fly Delta app.

"Consistent, reliable and relevant communication continues to be paramount as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic," said Delta spokesperson Drake Castañeda. "We want both our people and customers to be kept up to date and know that we've got their backs as we manage through this moment together."