DUNMORE, Pennsylvania – When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the community of Penn State Scranton to migrate to a remote environment last spring, Erika Wheeler worried about the implications this could have on her education.
Ultimately, however, 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.
Wheeler’s resulting study, “Loneliness and Video Chats during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” recently won first place in the Social Sciences category and received the Library Literacy Award on campus. Undergraduate Research Web Showcase this spring. His poster was also presented at the annual congress 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 students aged 18 to 29. In addition to her readings on the topic, she created a survey that focused on various aspects of video chats, as well as Likert-wide questions regarding feelings of intimacy and loneliness.
A total of 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 the pros and cons associated with using video chats at academic and personal purposes.
Wheeler received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the project, which ended his undergraduate career. On May 8, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in HDFS, culminating in a very successful return to the classroom after years of caring for herself and the three children of her husband Marty, Ava, 16, Christian, 11 and Aiden, 7 years old.
“I really don’t like being the center of attention, so I felt a little uncomfortable in situations like research shows. But I have to admit that seeing my final research poster, winning the research fair, and then handing in my completed article was one of the best feelings I have ever had, ”Wheeler said. “Honestly, I wanted to give up when the pandemic hit last spring, but I persevered with the support of Penn State College, family and friends who encouraged me to do so. “
Wheeler first chose her topic after hearing from a local psychologist about how she had created a successful support group for school-aged and college-aged patients who experienced strong feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
“I found it interesting that with so many social media connections at their fingertips, many young people feel a sense of loneliness in their lives,” Wheeler said. “When the pandemic hit, it made me question the impact quarantine and online schooling have on this age group when it comes to feelings of loneliness. curious about the use of video chat and its impact on loneliness. “
So, late last summer, Wheeler began researching studies that had already been done on video chat use and feelings of loneliness among emerging adult students. She was surprised to find that there was not much data available for this age group, as most of the current research she found focused on older people in nursing homes, nursing homes, military families, transnational families and some transnational students.
“I found it interesting that with so many social media connections 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, at the start of the fall semester, new research began to emerge regarding the direct correlation between the use of video chat during the quarantine imposed by COVID and its impact on mental well-being and relationships. She used this information to formulate her research questions that focused on the types, purposes, and frequency of video chats, as well as their pros and cons. In addition, she sought to find out who the students lived with, as well as their feelings of loneliness, intimacy, connectedness, normalcy and social isolation.
After Wheeler prepared the survey, a number of faculty helped her distribute her online link to students between the ages of 18 and 29 on the three designated campuses.
“I was very pleased with the support I received from faculty and students in response to the survey,” Wheeler said. “I found that the majority of participants were single and lived at home with their original family. The majority of them accessed video chats daily during the pandemic and most often used Zoom and Facetime. The main goals 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 questions on the Likert Scale revealed that many students believed the COVID-19 pandemic increased feelings of loneliness, but the video chats helped them stay connected with their partner and friends during a very difficult time and reduced their sense 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 privacy and facial expressions in academic zooms, given that the majority of students attend class with their cameras turned off.
“I suggest that 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 discussions with friends and family when students have their cameras on and interact with the other person in a more comfortable virtual atmosphere.”
“The use of video chat brought a sense of normalcy, intimacy and connection in the lives of the students during a difficult time,” she continued. “Still, some students with more intimate relationships have found greater negatives with the use of video chat. Perhaps this is because video chatting with someone they care deeply about makes them aware of the lack of actual physical presence, causing them to miss the person even more.
Wheeler was quick to note that she had received significant help from the HDFS faculty while she was leading the project. Before distributing the survey, she was invited by Associate Professor Raymond Petren to discuss the project with one of her classes. Meanwhile, her advisor, HDFS Assistant Professor Laura Nathans, has proven to be a tremendous guide through the process.
“Working with Dr. Nathans has been a wonderful experience,” said Wheeler. “We started meeting in early fall 2020 on Zoom once or twice a week and continued to work together until the end of the spring 2021 semester. She guided me through every step of this project. , and I would have been lost without his knowledge and guidance. She was patient and supportive every step of the way.
“My kids were at home most of this year due to hybrid school closures and COVID. Often our Zoom meetings were interrupted by one of my kids who needed help with homework, but Dr Nathans never seemed to care. Instead, she smiled at my kids and I realized I was doing my best in a difficult situation. I am more than grateful for her support, “said Wheeler.
“Erika was a dedicated, hardworking and hardworking student who was eager and enthusiastic to learn more about the research process,” Nathans said. “She has worked hard on her research and the poster and has grasped the concepts and findings very well. And I was very touched by her enthusiasm when she won the research fair.
The good choice
Wheeler had always wanted to go to college, but, unsure of her goals, decided to focus on raising her family instead.
When her youngest child started kindergarten, her husband encouraged her to pursue her dream. It was a big jump, and she was a little scared, but “I did it anyway,” she said.
Arriving on campus in the fall of 2017, Wheeler was initially unsure of what she wanted to pursue as a major. But, after discussing her career goals with Melissa LaBuda, Assistant Teaching Professor at HDFS, she decided to go with HDFS.
Looking back, she’s glad she took LaBuda’s advice.
“I have only positive things to say about the HDFS program and the faculty. All faculty are knowledgeable and genuinely care about the well-being and success of the students, ”said Wheeler. “I like the small campus and small class sizes, which gave me the support I needed to be successful.
Wheeler excelled throughout his four years on campus. She graduated with Distinction with a GPA of 3.8 and was a three-time recipient of the Jennings / McDonough Families Trustee Scholarship.
With a degree now in his pocket, Wheeler plans to begin pursuing his Masters in Counseling this fall at Clarks Summit University. Ultimately, she aspires to become a licensed professional counselor with her own practice.
For now, however, she has said she intends to spend the summer months relaxing with her family and enjoying the satisfaction of having achieved her goal. Reflecting on her university experience, she is filled with gratitude for those who have helped her along the way, namely her family, her teachers and her strong Christian faith.
“I am so happy I chose to attend Penn State Scranton,” said Wheeler. “I think what they say is true – at Penn State Scranton we can get a big college degree on a small college campus. I feel like I gained a quality education that challenged me, and I gained valuable knowledge that I will use when I enter the social service field and continue my education.