Irvin Yalom said, "People need people—for initial and for continued survival, for socialization, for the pursuit of satisfaction. No one—not the dying, not the outcast, not the mighty—transcends the need for human contact." Many of us have been isolated for close to a year now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and access to direct human interaction and socialization has been greatly diminished for many, with a marked increase in depression and loneliness. Fortunately, the dawn of the Virtual Age has increased the capacity for interactions when we can't share the same physical space with other people. Platforms, such as Zoom, allow us to connect and socialize, but there is a discernible difference in comparison to face-to-face interactions.
As a student, intern, and clinician, I have witnessed the shift in group dynamics that occurs in a virtual setting, as compared to a traditional group setting. My graduate coursework transitioned from face-to-face lecture to an online platform, and the level of participation and support from cohort members dramatically dropped. This has been incredibly difficult for me because I intentionally chose a Clinical Mental Health Counseling program that was not completely online, well, because I figured interaction and relationship building is at the heart of the counseling profession. Students with video off and not participating in a supervision course, which is intended to provide professor, as well as peer support, doesn't feel very supportive. Initially I struggled when reflecting on why I was so impacted by what others were doing, or rather, not doing. I brought it up to my supervisor at my internship site, and he pointed out that I was deeply experiencing the shift in the group dynamic.
My new-found insight provided me with a fresh perspective on my experiences and also enabled me to explore what this world of virtual groups must be like for our members of support, process, psychoeducation, and other groups that we facilitate. When a member stares blankly at the computer screen and doesn't participate, the rest of the group feels it, and yet there isn't an opportunity to see what the rest of the person's body is communicating. Are they experiencing anxiety and tapping their foot, or wringing out their hands? Do most members of the group feel that all eyes are on them since everyone is staring at a monitor and there isn't the ability to recognize who is looking at who? And in the case of classes where members of the group consistently have their video off, we are left to wonder if the person is even there.
I share all of this because I think it is crucial that as groups members, and as group leaders, that we explore the different dynamics of an in-person group and a virtual group, how the members are being affected by the shift, and how we can improve the experience. Clearly, a virtual platform creates opportunities for when we cannot occupy the same physical space for safety reasons, as well as to reach individuals who have limited resources in their area, or difficulty accessing resources for a multitude of reasons, and for this I am grateful. The question is, how do we maintain the same level of presence, interaction, and respect for others when our group connection is via a computer monitor?