On social media, memories pop up from a pandemic still going

Kantele Franko

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – When the pandemic passed the one-year mark, Lisa Phillips wasn’t exactly eager to walk down memory lane. She had developed symptoms and quarantined with a suspected case of COVID-19 last spring, lost her mother to the disease in July and been hospitalised in November from what she describes as a nervous breakdown fuelled by grief and isolation.

But Phillips also wasn’t ready to delete the apps that provide those reminders that showed her each day what she’d shared on social media just a year earlier.

That pain, she said, shouldn’t be forgotten. So she still wanted to save the memories – but for later.

As we navigate these weeks that are unspooling a year after March, April and May 2020, memories from earlier in the COVID-19 crisis are popping up in people’s social media feeds when throwbacks, reposts and commemorations crack open the digital time capsule of the pandemic before it’s even over.

Out spill the first reminders of a zillion virus-inflected anniversaries, ranging from the relatively trivial to the tragic: the empty toilet paper shelves, the new masks, the start of remote work or school, the gratitude to exhausted healthcare staff, the In Memoriams.

For Phillips, 42, of Phoenix, the trauma still feels fresh.

Lisa Phillips at her home in Phoenix. PHOTO: AP

“If you’re not ready to relive the anniversary and beginning of this ongoing pandemic, you’re not alone,” she tweeted. Social media’s insistence on serving our own experiences back up to us – even if desired – can complicate the coping. But experts say it also provides opportunities to realize connection – and to frame how we move forward.

“In certain ways we have more in common with more people on the planet than we probably have in any other year,” said Jamil Zaki, a Stanford University psychologist who researches empathy.

People’s circumstances vary widely, and the pandemic has exposed lots of inequities, disproportionately impacting communities of colour. “But at some level,” Zaki said, “many of us are dealing with a very similar type of anxiety, uncertainty, mourning and loss.”

Zillah Wesley, an organiser with the anti-poverty Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC, said she has known more than 40 people who have died during the pandemic, including several relatives and friends’ relatives. Many of them died in the early months, she said, and nearly all of them were fellow members of the Black community.

Now posts about them are showing up again on her smartphone, she said, bringing a sinking feeling of loss.

“I sit with it and just let it flow through me so it won’t pop up in other ways,” she said.

“It’s like you can click off the thing and still go about your day, but the person is still gone.”

The pandemic has been a collective trauma, and sharing personal emotional experience can help people feel supported and find meaning in that, said Sara Levens, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte psychology professor whose lab studies emotion.

Some people may find it helpful to look back on their own or others’ experiences and reflect on what they’ve learned, what’s been lost and gained, or where they’ve seen resilience or joy in the midst of greater hardship. To navigate that content in a healthy way, experts recommend that people pay attention to what kind of social media posts and stories they’re viewing – how the content makes them feel and whether they’re actually getting something useful from it.

“Just like you would be mindful of doom-scrolling, I think we need to be mindful of pandemic-scrolling,” said Elana Newman, a University of Tulsa psychologist and trauma researcher.

If the posts you’re reading start to feel more overwhelming and less like you’re plugging into shared experience, it’s probably a good idea to disengage and distract yourself with an activity that helps replenish you, Levens said.

Disabling social media notifications and muting or unfollowing accounts that negatively impact your mental health can help. Some users are even more proactive, intentionally limiting how they use digital tools that resurface their own memories.

Brian Acunis, a soon-to-be graduate student who has lived part of the past year in New York, said he deleted the reminiscing app Timehop from his phone just a few months into the pandemic.

He gave up a three-year streak with it because he didn’t want to keep seeing memories of all the activities and friends he was missing. “It just was too sad of a reminder,” said Acunis, 28.