Video Chat Apps in Times of Social Distancing: A Suitable Way to Fight Loneliness?

Category: Coronavirus, Privacy, social distancing


Social Distancing and its Psychological Effects

Humans are social beings. We need each other. However, the current Covid19 pandemic requires social distancing to slow down the spread of the corona virus. There is currently a fairly strict contact ban in Germany and in other countries as well. Friends and family cannot meet each other in person, and social life is almost at a standstill.

Besides the economic and public effects, the psychological consequences of social distancing are significant. Loneliness and social isolation can strain mental and somatic health. This not only increases the risk of anxiety and depression; also sleeping problems, increased high blood pressure and a weakened immune system can be the result. Ironically, especially in such challenging times it is even more important than usually to maintain social contacts and to share worries and fears. This also helps us to distract ourselves from the current difficulties. In addition to ‘classic’ distant communication forms such as telephone calls, there are several digital tools that make socialising ‘from a distance’ easy.

Digital Tools Against Loneliness

Digital services cannot replace in-person encounters, but they can help to maintain social ties even without physical contact. A recent study shows that face-to-face communication is a significantly stronger source of perceived emotional support than text-only messages. Video telephony is a valid alternative for keeping in touch with social contacts and actively preventing loneliness and its consequences caused by ‘physical distancing’ – a more accurate term than ‘social distancing’. Various video chat tools such as Skype or FaceTime have been available for a quite long time. Meanwhile, the video function has also been integrated into the common messenger apps.

A new social networking app is currently dominating the download charts. It is especially popular among young people: the “Houseparty” app. Here, users can video chat and also listen to music or play games together with up to eight participants. Another special feature is that users can communicate not only with their own contacts, but also with friends of friends. This makes the interaction quite similar to a real party. Sounds like the ideal solution for passing the time, having fun and maintaining social interactions, doesn’t it?

A House Party without Privacy?

Privacy experts, however, view Houseparty critically. During registration, users must provide, alongside access to camera and microphone, also the phone numbers and Facebook contact list as well as the location data of the mobile phone running the app. Furthermore, user data is passed on to Facebook. Accepting the terms of use of Houseparty further allows the provider ‘to use the content of any communications submitted by you via the services, including any ideas, inventions, concepts, techniques, or know-how disclosed therein, for any purpose including developing, manufacturing, and/or marketing goods or services’.

It follows that if users nonetheless want to use Houseparty, they need to be cautious about the information they share in the app’s chat rooms and to the data they disclose upon registration. After all, it is important to remember who also ‘attends’ the party other than invited guests and their friends. In the digital context, participants leave a lasting trail of data that can be used for purposes they cannot always predict. In other words, when you party digital, not everything that happens in Vegas also stays in Vegas.