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Quaran-teens: Has a youth spent online prepared millennials for isolation?

For the first time ever, people who spent their childhoods on the internet are now working-age adults – and their old digital habits could help them ahead of a possible national lockdown.

Last Tuesday, when a rumour broke that the UK would be moving into the delay phase of its coronavirus response and would begin asking people to quarantine and self-isolate, one of my group chats started popping off. This particular group is made up of six people, most of whom met on Tumblr ten years ago, and one friend in particular complained about the general, panicked response many people were having to the news.

“No one is talking about how, in the age of the internet, we can all hang out anyway,” she said. “Everyone is acting like they are going to be in a sensory deprivation tank, all your friends are on the computer!” She then went on to paraphrase a viral Tumblr post: “It is warm in the computer and there are friends in the computer. I love the computer.”

We have reached the first time in history where millions of young people are now at working age after spending their teenage years heavily online. The ex-Tumblr teens, Reddit posters and LiveJournalers of the Noughties are now in their twenties and thirties, working across many fields and leading traditionally “normal” lives despite a childhood spent on the internet for multiple hours a day.

While for some these old digital habits died after work hours forced them to focus their energy offline and free time around work was limited, many are realising that their old online routine may be what saves them ahead of a possible national lockdown. 

Tom, a 25-year-old accountant in Northampton, has been heavily online since 2007 when he spent most of his time playing online games and making friends via social media.

“I started exploring internet forums, relishing the fact that there was a wealth of people who were also fans of the stuff I liked whether or not they lived anywhere near me,” he says. Tom tells me that, thanks to a childhood spent socialising on digital platforms, the news of potential quarantine didn’t phase him.

“My main support system and social circle are all available online, so feelings of loneliness don't come as easily,” he says. “These days, nearly everything I do involves the internet.” 

When Cait, a 28-year-old hospital operations coordinator from New York, heard the news that people might have to quarantine for weeks or even months, she didn’t have much of a reaction. Without many friends growing up, Cait describes herself as part of the “online generation”, never without a computer at home and predominantly making friends online. 

“I spent most of my teen years holed up in my room playing games or blogging as it is,” she tells me, “so isolation is something that’s second nature to me I suppose. Some of my closest friends are still the people that I met on those platforms!”

Many of the people I spoke to were heavily involved in fandom groups as teenagers, where they developed intense, emotional bonds with fellow fans on internet forums such as LiveJournal and Tumblr.

“I would say most friends I have now I met online or communicate with digitally rather than in-person,” Samantha, a 25-year old office worker, tells me. “Even people I do see in person are people I met online.” 

Samantha tells me that being forced to be at home for weeks would be “the dream”. “I sometimes have to make up things I did at the weekend when people at work ask because I love staying at home so much I never do anything outside,” she says.

“I do think it would get hard after two weeks, and I would have to put an emphasis on doing voice calls with people, getting up and moving around, and exercising to make sure I’d feel okay. But in general most of my friends now are online, and even those in real life are easier to talk to online, so it wouldn’t be a struggle and with the internet. I don’t think I’d get bored at all.”

For many ex-internet teens, a life spent predominantly online was the ideal and some have strived towards a remote working life that would allow them to limit their physical social interaction. Rachel is one of these people, a freelance worker in business growth and marketing, who works remotely from her home in London. After a childhood spent “obsessively” online, her entire life has been structured to do most of her socialising online. 

“Aside from the obvious feelings of how scary and weird the situation is as a whole, I felt kind of relieved to know that I could stay at home and not have to decide between going to things or sitting them out,” she says of the impending coronavirus quarantine. “Selfishly I also felt a bit frustrated: as someone who usually works from home alone, I’m somewhat dreading having the house full of my housemates and not being able to relax and work peacefully in the same way.”

“Seriousness of the situation aside,” Amina, a 23-year-old student, tells me, “hell yeah, my reaction was a positive one.” 

While a teendom spent online has helped prepare some to socialise via the internet, many of the people I spoke to say their youth was also riddled with anxiety and depression – something they’re concerned might return. 

“I’m quite worried that, however slowly, my mood will just start to deteriorate and I’ll get less and less done, and sink into the kind of depression I had from school onwards,” Rachel says. “It could be affected by the sheer number of hours I’ll be online (over and above the standard 9-5) and the way that my work hours will just bleed into the evening if I have no plans or need to leave the house.”

Amina tells me that she spent a lot of time last year “shut in”, experiencing a relapse in the chronic depression she’s had on and off since she was a pre-teen. “I didn't leave my house for weeks sometimes and didn't leave the general vicinity of my area more than the distance of 10 minutes for months,” she says.

“I feel like I’m in a good place right now, but I guess I’m a bit worried something like this will mess up my flow… my slippery slopes always start with self-isolating. I’ll skip a class and then suddenly I haven’t been in two weeks. And I know there are things I’d love to do if we all have to stay home, but that’s the me now saying that and romanticising it all – I could easily see a more depressed me during that time falling into a habit of sleeping and mindlessly scrolling Twitter.”

But for others, whose mental health issues never really left, quarantine is unintimidating: it would have little to no impact on how they go about their daily life. “Honestly, as someone with depression and anxiety, the idea of self-isolating is kinda great,” Haaniyah, a 21-year-old pop culture critic from Aylesbury, tells me. “I think I’m less worried mainly because I’ve been isolated online for half my life due to lack of friends and insane bullying as a teen. I guess I’m just used to it.”

Cait tells me that her mental health issues actually worsen from contact with other people. “Being by myself is preferable,” she says. “When I do crave social interaction, I have no problem picking up the phone.”

Because of their lived experience of being incredibly online, the ex-internet teens I spoke to felt they had useful advice for those worried about heading into quarantine. “Set limits for yourself about how much time you do spend online,” Cait recommends. “Being online is great and it’s definitely the best way to stay in touch nowadays, but it’s important to break up that screentime with other activities, too.”

“It's quite unique in that everyone else is in the same boat, being stuck at home, not just in the UK but in most of the world,” Tom says, “so I think the internet is going to feel like it's on 2x speed over the next few months in terms of trends and content. It's a great time to find new communities and get back in touch with old friends.”

“For a lot of people, I think online communities are transformative in the sense that they provide a safe space to explore your own identity and interests,” Alex, a 24-year-old charity worker and ex-Tumblr obsessive, says. “There is so much out there to do – read fiction, non-fiction, learn a language, watch film and TV, create something, write, draw.” 

“Talk to your friends, even if they aren't physically there,” she also recommends. “When a good friend of mine moved across the country a few years ago, instead of making evening plans we would speak on the phone for two or three hours a couple of times a week. In every way that mattered, it was no different to when we'd lived in the same city. There are ways of communicating you might not normally use, but that people have used for an incredibly long time to stay close with people they are apart from.”

“Particularly at points where I have been more isolated in my offline life,” she says, “I found that having online friends meant I was never truly on my own.”

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.