When COVID-19 moved most social interactions online, researchers like Michael Sayette started wondering about the mental health and substance use consequences of the shift.
A study published in Clinical Psychological Science and co-authored by Sayette, a professor of psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, suggests combining alcohol and virtual social interaction had negative effects compared to in-person gatherings.
In the study, participants video called either a friend or a stranger seated in a separate room. Researchers gave some participants alcoholic drinks and others nonalcoholic drinks.
As the call took place, researchers tracked participants’ eye movements, or “gaze behavior.”
The study showed that participants who consumed alcohol before conducting the video chat spent more time watching themselves during the conversation instead of their partners. They also felt more negative after the virtual exchange than the people who didn’t drink.
Additionally, the mood-enhancing properties of alcohol seen in in-person interactions weren’t seen in the virtual interactions, Sayette said.
“In a face-to-face conversation, we would expect alcohol to reduce your focus on yourself, which is one of the effects of alcohol that people seem to enjoy,” he said. “Yet in this online study, when your own face is staring back at you from the monitor, it seems that alcohol loses this effect. This may explain why some people don’t find alcohol to enhance socializing in a virtual format.”
Beyond the current study, Sayette noted there is evidence that reducing one’s drinking or participating Dry January or Sober October could provide longer-lasting health benefits.
“I would say that if you are not missing drinking, then there is no reason to return to it when February begins,” Sayette said. “It may turn out to improve your overall health, especially if you are a heavy drinker.”
This story was originally published by the University of Pittsburgh on January 26, 2023.