When much of the world began lockdowns to battle coronavirus in March 2020, many people turned to video calls to fight off the loneliness that often accompanies social isolation. Tech companies reported that the use of video calls for socializing surged by as much as 80%, enabling people to "see" family and friends. But it doesn't take a lockdown to warrant the use of this technology.
THE EPIDEMIC OF LONELINESS AND ISOLATION
Loneliness affects more than a third of older Americans. Another third of older adults feel isolated: they may be living alone, lack transportation, or live far from loved ones. Or they may have outlived a spouse or friends.
Though not caused by a virus, loneliness and isolation can have life-threatening consequences. Research has shown that people who feel lonely or isolated are at increased risk for developing coronary artery disease, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, declining thinking skills, an inability to perform daily living tasks, or an early death.
Such risks make it worth the effort to stay connected. "Humans are social creatures by nature, so you should use the tools you have to see a loved one's face, to share stories, to let them know you're thinking of them," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. For many people, the impact of seeing the face, as well as hearing the voice, of a loved one seems to be greater than just hearing the voice.
DEMYSTIFYING THE TECHNOLOGY
Making a video call may seem complicated. "But you're never too old to learn something new. It may seem daunting, but learning some tech skills can actually bring some satisfaction," Miller says.
What you should know first is that video calls are made via apps (applications or programs) on a smartphone, laptop, or tablet. These apps enable you to reach people anywhere in the world. All it takes to connect is an Internet connection with a home computer network (home wi-fi) or cellular phone service (what you use to make phone calls from a smartphone or tablet).
Most apps are free, but they involve transferring a lot of data quickly. If you use cellular service to connect to the Internet, you may need a service plan that allows you unlimited data usage.
WHAT THE APPS DO
Apps that make video calls often have other features, enabling you to text, make audio-only calls, send photos or recorded video, or augment your appearance. Check out this list of some of the most popular tools people are using to stay connected.
FaceTime (www.apple.com) is an app that comes preloaded on Apple devices, including smart-phones, tablets, and laptops. The app allows you to make a video call to just one person or as many as 32 people at a time. You'll need your contacts' phone numbers to call them. A caveat: this app works only with other iOS (Apple) devices. Android (non-iOS) phones also come with built-in apps that enable video calls, although the particular app varies by phone. Changing from an audio-only call to a video call, no matter which type of Android phone you have, is just a matter of pressing the video camera icon (symbol) on your keypad, and having the call receiver do the same.
Google Duo (duo.google.com) enables you to make video calls to just one person or up to eight people at time. You can also leave video messages for people you call--a nice feature that enables others to play a message again and again if they're missing you. Likewise, if someone leaves you a message, you can play it back repeatedly.
Snapchat (www.snapchat.com) offers a way to send fun photo messages and short videos. The app has filters that add silly hats, eyes, noses, voices, and other stickers to images. You can take a number of "snaps" and send them in chronological order for a "story" that you share with others. One feature unique to Snapchat: messages are automatically deleted after a brief time. You can also use Snapchat to send standard text messages and make video phone calls.
Zoom (www.zoom.com) is popular for videoconferences. It can host up to 1,000 people in meeting. Businesses and schools often use Zoom, but the app is also used for personal videoconferences. Zoom is free for calls between two people for 24 hours per call, and free for up to 100 people for 40 minutes; but there are charges to add additional participants or meeting minutes.
Skype (www.skype.com) can host up to 50 people at a time, and you can use it with or without video. It's free if you're calling another Skype user. There's a small monthly charge to use Skype to make a voice-only call someone on a landline or cellphone.
WhatsApp (www.whatsapp.com) allows you to send text messages and make phone calls (with or without video). The app also enables you to send and receive videos, documents, and voice messages.
To make video calls, you'll need to download an app to an electronic device and invite your contacts to download the app and accept your invitation. If you're not sure how to do this, search online for a quick video tutorial -- just specify whether you're downloading the app to your phone, tablet, or laptop.
On some apps, the names of your acquaintances will automatically pop up in a window if you allow the app to gain access to your contacts. Otherwise, you'll need to enter each contact's phone number or user name (which may just be an email address). Once the contact information is in place, messaging or calling is just a matter of clicking on a name.
NOT JUST FOR FAMILY CALLS
Once you become comfortable making video calls, you can use them to take part in many social activities, such as book clubs, support groups, or exercise instruction.
Will you feel less lonely or isolated if you stay in touch with people on video calls? "We don't have enough evidence yet to prove that you will," Dr. Miller says. "But the odds are that seeing others and sharing meaningful conversations will make you feel better."