Adult learner explores relationship between student video chat use, loneliness

DUNMORE, Pa. — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Penn State Scranton community to migrate to a remote setting last spring, Erika Wheeler was worried about the implications it might have on her education.

In the end, though, it inspired the adult learner and human development and family studies (HDFS) major to pursue a timely and ambitious research project examining a unique aspect of this new learning environment.

Erika Wheeler poses in her cap and gown this spring at the Scranton's Nittany Lion Shrine

Before completing her bachelor's degree in HDFS this spring, Penn State Scranton adult learner Erika Wheeler spent the past year working on the research project, "Loneliness and Video Chats during the COVID-19 Pandemic." Her study took first place in the Social Science category and received the Library Literacy Award at this year's Undergraduate Research Web Showcase.  

Credit: Penn State

Wheeler’s resulting study, “Loneliness and Video Chats during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” recently took first place in the Social Science category and received the Library Literacy Award at the campus’ Undergraduate Research Web Showcase this spring. Her poster was also showcased at the annual Penn State Eastern Regional Undergraduate Research Symposium.

For the project, the Taylor resident explored the relationship between loneliness and the use of video chats during the COVID-19 pandemic among emerging adult college students ages 18 to 29. In addition to her readings on the subject, she created a survey geared around various aspects of video chats, as well as Likert scale questions regarding feelings of intimacy and loneliness.

Overall, 226 students from three college campuses — Penn State Scranton, Penn State Brandywine and Cedar Crest College — responded to the survey, with the results showing both benefits and negatives associated with the use of video chats for academic and personal purposes.

Wheeler received resoundingly positive feedback on the project, which put a nice capper on her undergraduate career. On May 8, she received her bachelor’s degree in HDFS, culminating a highly successful return to the classroom following years of caring for her and husband Marty’s three children, Ava, 16, Christian, 11, and Aiden, 7. 

“I really don’t like being the center of attention, so I felt a little uncomfortable in situations like the research fairs. But I have to admit, seeing my final research poster, winning the research fair, and then handing in my completed paper was one of the best feelings I have ever felt,” Wheeler said. “I honestly wanted to give up when the pandemic hit last spring, but I persevered with support from Penn State faculty, my family, and my friends who encouraged me that I could do this.”

Timely topic

Wheeler initially chose her topic after hearing a local psychologist recount how she started a successful support group for high school- and college-age patients who were experiencing strong feelings of loneliness and disconnection.

“I found it interesting that with so much social media connection at their fingertips, many young people feel a sense of loneliness in their lives," said Wheeler. “When the pandemic hit, this led me to question the impact quarantine and online school would have on this age group in regards to feelings of loneliness. I was especially curious about video chat use and its impact on loneliness.”

So, at the end of last summer, Wheeler began researching studies that had already been conducted regarding video chat use and feelings of loneliness in emerging adult college students. She was surprised to find there wasn’t much data available for this age group, as most of the current research that she found was focused on elderly people in nursing homes, military families, transnational families, and some transnational college students. 

“I found it interesting that with so much social media connection at their fingertips, many young people feel a sense of loneliness in their lives."

—Erika Wheeler, human development and family studies, Penn State Scranton

However, by the beginning of the fall semester, new research began to emerge regarding the direct correlation between video chat use during COVID-imposed quarantine and its impact on mental well-being and relationships. She used that information to form her research questions geared around types, purposes and frequencies of video chats, as well as their benefits and negatives. In addition, she sought to find out who the students reside with, as well as their feelings of loneliness, intimacy, connectedness, normalcy and social isolation.

After Wheeler put together the survey, a number of professors helped her distribute its online link to students ages 18 to 29 at the three designated campuses.

“I was very happy with the support I received from professors and students in response to the survey,” Wheeler said. “I found the majority of the participants were single and resided at home with their family of origin. The majority of them accessed video chats daily during the pandemic, and most often used Zoom and Facetime. The main purposes were academics, followed by socializing with friends.”

According to Wheeler, the most popular benefits of video chats cited by students were being able to see another person’s facial expressions, followed by the ability to interact live with another person. Meanwhile, her Likert scale questions revealed many students felt the COVID-19 pandemic increased feelings of loneliness, yet video chats helped them remain connected to their partner and friends during a very challenging time and reduced their feelings of social isolation. 

The most chosen negatives of video chats centered around the use of Zoom for academic purposes, with many students citing feelings associated with the dreaded “Zoom Fatigue.” Wheeler believes this may be due to the lack of intimacy and facial expressions in academic Zooms, given the majority of students attend class with their cameras turned off. 

“I suggest more research can be done on this topic of academic video chat use in the future,” Wheeler said. “More benefits were found in more intimate chats with friends and family when students have their camera on and they are interacting with the other person in a more comfortable virtual atmosphere.”

“Video chat use brought a sense of normalcy, intimacy, and connectedness into students’ lives during a difficult period of time,” she continued. “Yet, some students with more intimate relationships found greater negatives with video chat use. This may be because video chatting with a person they care deeply about makes them aware of the lack of actual physical presence, which in turn makes them miss the person even more.”

Wheeler was quick to note that she received significant assistance from the HDFS faculty as she carried out the project. Prior to distributing the survey, she was invited by Associate Professor Raymond Petren to discuss the project with one of his classes. Meanwhile, her adviser, Assistant Professor of HDFS Laura Nathans, proved a tremendous guide throughout the entire process.

“Working with Dr. Nathans was a wonderful experience,” Wheeler said. “We began meeting in early Fall 2020 over Zoom once or twice a week, and continued to work together until the end of the Spring 2021 semester. She walked me through every step of this project, and I would have been lost without her knowledge and guidance. She was patient and encouraging every step of the way.

"My children were home the majority of this year due to hybrid school and COVID shutdowns. Oftentimes our Zoom meetings would be interrupted by one of my children who needed help with schoolwork, but Dr. Nathans never seemed to mind. Instead, she smiled at my children and understood I was trying my best in a difficult situation. I’m beyond grateful for her support," said Wheeler.

“Erika was a dedicated, diligent and hardworking student who was eager and enthusiastic to learn about the research process,” Nathans said. “She worked hard on her research and the poster and grasped the concepts and findings very well. And I was very moved by her excitement when she won the research fair.”

The right choice

Wheeler had always wanted to attend college, but, unsure of her goals, decided to focus on raising her family instead.

When her youngest child began preschool, her husband encouraged her to pursue her dream. It was a big leap, and she was a little afraid, but “I did it anyway,” she said.

Arriving at the campus in the fall of 2017, Wheeler was initially unsure what she wanted to pursue as a major. But, after discussing her career goals with Assistant Teaching Professor of HDFS Melissa LaBuda, she decided to go with HDFS.

Looking back, she’s thrilled she followed LaBuda’s advice.

“I have only positive things to say about the HDFS program and faculty. All of the professors are knowledgeable and genuinely care about student well-being and success,” Wheeler said. “I love the small campus and small class sizes, which allowed me to get the support I needed to be a successful student.”

Wheeler excelled throughout her four years at the campus. She graduated cum laude with a 3.8 grade point average, and was the three-time recipient of the Jennings/McDonough Families Trustee Scholarship.

Degree now in hand, Wheeler intends to begin pursuing her master’s degree in counseling this fall at Clarks Summit University. Ultimately, she aspires to become a licensed professional counselor with her own practice.

For now, though, she said she intends to spend the summer months relaxing with her family and enjoying the satisfaction of accomplishing her goal. Reflecting on her college experience, she’s filled with gratitude for those who helped her along the way — namely, her family, her professors and her strong Christian faith.

“I am so happy with my choice to attend Penn State Scranton,” Wheeler said. “I feel what they say is true — at Penn State Scranton, we can attain a big college degree at a small college campus. I feel I earned a quality education that challenged me, and I have gained valuable knowledge that I will use as I enter the social services field and continue my education.”