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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

COVID-19 and Connectedness: Finding a Balance in Our Online Lives

UNLV sociologist Simon Gottschalk provides tips on how to adjust to increased screen time during the coronavirus pandemic.
22-May-2020 12:05 PM EDT, by University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

As uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine wears on, there remains one constant: a reliance on the internet, social media, and streaming services for work, school, entertainment, and keeping in touch with friends and family.

But is the increased screen time — and the resulting onslaught of emails, memes, and media consumption that come with the removed barrier between work and home — taking a toll on our mental health?

For answers, we turned to Simon Gottschalk, a UNLV sociology professor and author of “The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times,” which examines the social and psychological toll of our increasingly online lives on work, education, family life, interactions, our sense of self, and more.

Here, Gottschalk offers tips for cutting down on stress as we adjust to our “new normal.”

Working from home means we jump from work computers to phones to TV and back again. How is the increased screen time impacting health?

It’s not just that we jump from work computers to phones to TV, but that we do so differently than before. Because our main mode of communication is now reduced to online communication, we receive and send more work-related messages and are expected to answer them more quickly than before. In light of the problems inherent in computer-mediated communication, the larger number of emails we exchange and the shorter time to answer them will statistically increase the risk of errors. Those will in turn take more time and work to (often urgently) resolve online. To make matters worse, online communication is a poor medium where to do so.  Among other things, we must contend with technical glitches, and disorientation because of the unfamiliar audio-visual presence of colleagues in our private space and time. These new situations are really interesting, sociologically, but still confusing.

Increased screen time negatively impacts our health, not only in terms of the stress involved in the practical, social, and psychological adjustments it requires, but also because of the broader social landscape where we must do so. This landscape is certainly brightened by heroic volunteers, neighbors, and typically invisible workers. It features a few courageous political, scientific, and media figures, and displays institutions that evidence intelligent adaptability. At the same time, however, this landscape is constantly rocked by the risk of sudden illness and death, the unfathomable number of fatalities, the dramatic transformation of everyday life, the visceral vertigo of uncertainty, the contradictory directions on how to proceed, the dystopian horizons, and the suspension of long-term planning. This landscape is also resounding with furious accusations, threats of armed violence, and psychotic conspiracy theories. Those must also be taken into consideration when examining the stress resulting from increased screen time.

What are your thoughts regarding dueling memes circulating about productivity vs. healing? Should people under quarantine scramble to fill every waking hour with activity, or is it OK to slow down and take time to process (especially for those facing job loss, illness, or the deaths of loved ones)?

I think that the answer is somewhere in the middle. As the public space has become both unsafe and empty, social life has shrunk to the connected private space, and for many, the workplace has given way to work time. Accordingly, it seems that those who are fortunate enough to control their working conditions could take this unique opportunity to slow down, process, examine the excessive speed of “normal” everyday life, and re-evaluate 
— at both individual and societal levels — our lifestyles, priorities, assumptions, consumption patterns, distribution of resources, and genuine needs rather than succumb to the fetishism of productivity. In other words, the solution is neither to work more nor not at all, but differently. 

At the same time, however, millions of people do not have the luxury of slowing down or taking the time to process the grief, anger, and anxiety brought about by the consequences of COVID-19. They are too busy trying to find a solution to an urgent existential threat. Some see COVID-19 as a national trauma that rivals 9/11. Since an unresolved trauma does not disappear, but will manifest itself in a variety of forms, and often long after the traumatic event has occurred, I am also concerned about the societal reactions to this traumatic event. It will take years and quite a bit of collective therapeutic efforts before we are able to adequately process it, learn the necessary lessons it suggests, and have the political will to implement them. Unfortunately, very few resources are currently invested in improving society’s mental health, and I anticipate that their number will be significantly reduced in the near future.

As people turn to social media to ease their boredom, they're being deluged 24/7 with hand-washing songs and dance competitions on TikTok, coronavirus home remedy misinformation on Facebook, and bickering among politicians about the correct course of action on Twitter. What are the positives of using social media as an outlet for stress, as well as the potential harms associated with negativity surrounding the global response to the virus? 

Overall, research suggests that individuals who connect to others through social media and other platforms fare better psychologically than those who do not and who feel isolated. As recent studies conclude, loneliness might be a bigger health risk than smoking and obesity. So, on a first level, going online and interacting with others is indeed beneficial. On a second level, however, we also need to consider the reasons why we connect to others online, the kinds of connection we establish there, the modes of interaction we enact there, the people with whom we interact, and the kind of information we are exposed to. To take an extreme case, if the main online sites you log into when you feel lonely and need validation expose you to a constant fusillade spraying messages of hatred, paranoid accusations, and asinine recommendations, then I think it’s best to turn off the computer, go for a walk (with a mask!), or read a good book. In other words, it is relatively easy to avoid drowning in the 24/7 internet logorrhea. Objective, valid, and reliable information about current conditions are available online. And so are logical recommendations about the most intelligent courses of action. One of the many benefits of higher education is precisely the ability to identify the best information about a particular issue, access it, synthesize it, share it, and act ethically on it. While such a course of action inevitably requires work, no other generation in the history of our species has had as much access to as much information, as fast, and as free as we do.

It’s also important to note that the response to COVID-19 has not been equally negative in different countries. New Zealand, South Korea, Germany, and Vietname, for example, have been efficient at controlling the spread of the virus, minimizing conspiracy theories, and demonstrating to citizens that their trust in their institutions is indeed justified and warranted. 

Do you think people who use social media for nefarious purposes are doubling down their efforts these days?

Unfortunately, yes. The most sophisticated tools of communication can also spread the most regressive memes inan increasingly disoriented culture. Thus, reports in various countries detect a significant increase in anti-Asian slurs and threats, both in virtual networks and in physical places. Recent research also uncovers the diffusion of tiresome, yet inflammatory anti-Semitic accusations that haven’t evolved since the mid-14th century. In other networks, and sometimes the same ones, the targets are Latin-American immigrants, international organizations, gay couples, abortionists, atheists, or whoever is the designated villain du jour. The targets change but the regressive reflex remains the same. What is significantly different between reactions to COVID-19 and the Spanish flu, for example, is that this regressive reflex will quickly be confirmed, quickly amplified, and easily mobilized in the social media networks where it appears and, one suspects, beyond them.

Accordingly, if the infamous 2012 Facebook experiment demonstrated that individuals can — unaware — quickly contaminate their networks with mild negative emotions, one can only imagine the velocity and ferocity with which primary emotions such as existential fear and anger will “go viral” among individuals whose capacity to soberly evaluate information is already compromised. It seems that, as a society, we should consider that if the First Amendment does not protect the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, it shouldneither protect it on a crowded website, when the intent is the same.

Can you offer tips for people who want to unplug when it seems that the world wants us all to stay constantly connected?

Just do it. 

I don’t think that the “world wants us all to stay constantly connected.” Overall, the same groups of people need our attention (and we need theirs) at different points in time, and with various levels of urgency. I trust that we are smart enough to figure out who those people are, when they typically need our attention, when we can get theirs, how quickly, for what, and so on. If we are unsure, it’s relatively simple to ask and to negotiate online accessibility. We certainly have the tools to do so. Of course, we must also assume that emergencies might occur and prepare for those as well. When you think about it, our ability to calibrate our devices to increasingly precise and personalized specifications should enable us to purposefully engineer the conditions under which we connect. 

There is, as always, a caveat here. While many scholars have used the concept Digital Divide to refer to social groups’ unequal access to the internet, others have extended this concept to include social groups’ unequal freedom to disconnect from the internet. Some categories of workers are expected to be constantly “on call” while others have much more freedom to protect their private time and space. So, unless our professional and personal responsibilities require us to be constantly online, we can decide when and how much time we want to spend connecting, managing emails and messages, surfing the web, watching the news, or scrolling down the feeds of our social media sites. Ultimately, for many people, it is a matter of choice, not an imperative. Our coice is netiher total immersion nor total unplugging, but a decisive orchestration of the two.

Being able to be in “constant contact” has many benefits and, in any case, has become a near-absolute requirement to participate in the global present. However, I believe that this ability or "freedom" is costly on a great many different levels of social existence. To concretize this idea, I often assign homework requiring students to completely disconnect from the online environment for at least 24 hours, and to observe how they (and those around them) react to the severing of the wireless umbilical cable. They are predictably pleasantly surprised.

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