As college students, we have all been told time and time again: do not go into the arts. We live under capitalism, where our value as people is directly correlated with how much we’re paid. As corporations turn into media conglomerates and media conglomerates turn into monopolies, economic opportunities for creatives are shrinking. Terrified parents have only increased their pleas to their artistically inclined children, begging them to get degrees in something “useful.” However, quarantine has forced us all to reconsider what it is we deem useful, and to reckon with the massive role that entertainment media plays in our quarantined lives.
In March, we published an article about what platforms people were using to connect with each other digitally during the quarantine. Nine months later, students are still maintaining virtual connections while we wait for a vaccine. We’re still using our devices to watch TV and movies and play games virtually with our IRL friends, but students also report using social media to form new friendships that are online-only. Some are growing their social circle in quarantine by connecting with others in primarily queer and primarily youth spaces, like internet fandoms. Finding each other through their interest in some of the great media that have come out during quarantine (to name a few, “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” “The Half of It” and “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts”) as well as by revisiting nostalgic classics, students report a renewed interest in fanfiction, fan-made content and using social media sites like Discord and Tumblr for connecting with other fans.
As quarantine, COVID-19 danger and political instability have taken their toll on our mental health, students have been taking advantage of entertainment media for its therapeutic capacities. College students have precious little free time, mental energy or resources to draw on, and when every day seems to bring a new tragedy, simple and inexpensive distraction becomes invaluable. Students consistently report utilizing media to fill their time away from work and loved ones with content in order to help avoid anxiety and intrusive thoughts. While spending all day at school or at work on a screen is exhausting and repetitive in its own way, sitting down at the end of a long day to watch classic films over Zoom or Discord brings a moment of peace and relaxation that few things can replicate. Students continue to use mindless or relaxing media to bring a sense of balance into their lives where fresh chaos surfaces with each passing day.
In search of not only peace but of memories of a less tumultuous time, we’re also turning to nostalgia for a quarantine fix. Students are getting reacquainted with solitary activities that they’d long given up before, like playing video games such as The Sims, writing letters and watching K-dramas.
It’s undeniable that we’ve been relying on TV and movies for relaxation out of sheer exhaustion. Living through a pandemic and attempted presidential coup takes a toll on a person, even if just a mental one; and after a day of classes, essays and watching the death toll rise, sometimes all we can do is lie down and watch “The Office” for the third time. While one might expect social media use to rise consistently among students in quarantine, during a time of such conflict and tragedy, social media has the potential to feel isolating and anxiety-inducing even in itself. Even for those of us with online friends or fandom communities, it can feel unthinkable to boot up Tumblr to chat with friends after a six-hour school day on Canvas, communicating with classmates via discussion posts. Mills students are all exhausted in their own ways, lacking the energy to be creative in their independent projects or social in their own communities.
The stress of online school is not unrelated to the difficulty students have finding joy right now, even in entertainment media. Under so much stress, it’s only logical that completing work has become difficult, but the guilt of feeling unproductive in a capitalist society can be overwhelming. Some students report being unable to take any breaks at all unless they pick tasks with low time commitments, like reading fanfiction, scrolling through social media or playing mental exercise games. Anything else, like starting a TV show, watching a movie or — heaven forbid — picking up a novel, feels like an unjustifiable abandonment of homework.
As separated as we are right now, we’re all coping in a similar way — with art. Whether it’s TV, movies, video games or fanfiction, we’re all using some form of entertainment media to cope. We’re stuck inside hiding from a deadly virus that our government is doing nothing to contain, and yet students are being forced to go on with school like everything is normal. But as long as we have access to the internet, we will have access to what can get us through this: art. And hopefully, when we finally come out of quarantine, we’ll be able to consider that it might have real value, even in the most utilitarian sense.