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Staying socially connected digitally during the pandemic:

Understanding the negative effects of technology and its force for good

Written by Amélie van den Brink (MA, Art Psychotherapist, CBHN Creative Director) & Sara Dominguez (PhD, Early Years Psychology)   

Kazimir Malevich, Children on the Grass, 1908 (Pushkin Museum State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow).

It is no secret now that Covid-19 has been deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). And it has already begun to wreak havoc in large parts of the world, with some parts waiting in anticipation and fear. This is a real struggle that is demanding us all to collectively mobilize and stay together. And strangely enough, the one instrument that is keeping us together is technology, no matter how we love or hate it. Our need to stay connected digitally has never been more important than now because we are innately born to be and stay social. 

In this blog we will begin by briefly touching on the effects of technology on our mental, physical and social health. Then we will discuss four ways to reduce the negative effects of technology, particularly on children. We close the blog by looking at the global response of using technology to stay socially connected in a physically distant reality. 

Negative effects of technology on physical, mental and social health 

For as long as technology has been around, we have been warned of its potential dangers. In particular, these dangers point to its overuse. As the global saying goes: ‘too much of anything is not good for you.’ And there is a cause for concern when it comes to our frequent use of technology on our psychological, physical and social wellbeing. We will talk about these three specifics in the following undersections. 

Physical effects 

Technology can negatively impact our physical health. The number one effect is obesity. Whenever we spend more than one hour in front of their screens, we are unconsciously setting ourselves up to snack more, keep glued to the screen and exercise less. Our sitting around increases our risk for poor blood circulation in our body as well as having more pain in our neck, head and eyes. In some severe cases, we can develop curved backbones and bad postures. Also, while it might be cool to be dancing with our iPod on full blast while walking down the street or out grocery shopping, the volume of noise can severely impact our hearing, to the extent of producing hearing loss and nauseating ringing in our ears. In some severe cases also, we can develop tendonitis in the thumb from pressing the same button with our thumb or playing too many games. 

Mental health effects

Being connected all of the time can cause psychological issues. We can develop increased distractibility, anxiety, narcissism, needing instant gratification, and even depression. The main culprit for these symptoms lies with us not getting good quality and quantity of sleep. Sleep influences the chemical melatonin which comes from our glowing screens. The blue light emitted from our screens on cell phones, computers, tablets, and televisions restrain the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm. When melatonin is reduced, it can make it harder for us to fall and stay asleep.And sleep is THE remedy for regulating our mental state. 

Also, addiction to technology is on the rise and it is creating even more concern than the other above listed effects. Addiction in general affect’s our health and social life. In some cases, it can destroy our social and family bonds. When we are addicted to technology we can develop phenomenons such as Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and The Chronic Smartphone Stress. We bet you did not know about the last phenomenon. Well, this is about our constant need to look at our phones for notifications (or their absence), anticipating messages or emails. When we do not get enough attention from our phones, it can lead us to feel stressed, isolated, and/or even depressed. In fact, our excessive information space, often exaggerated online personas, internet overuse and social isolation are discreetly rewiring our brains and increasing our likelihood of developing depressive behavior.  

Social effects 

On a social level, technology is cramming our ability to communicate with one another. Business meetings are held over Skype, children chat instead of calling their grandparents on messenger and people talk rather than meet up in person. Moreover, physical strong social bonds are being replaced with technology. Bonds are being replaced with shallow ‘friends’, making more and more people to feel lonely and depressed. Strangely and quiet rapidly, we’ve made it a habit to live in our own world and stare at our technological devices, even when we are surrounded by people, including friends and family. Also, we are unconsciously replacing our real-life interactions with online communication and it is making us loose our distinct ability to read social cues such as tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and direct wording. And let’s not forget about our interactions with games and video games that are violent in content. While there is no sound causality on our negative behaviors, any violence which is played over and over again is (in)directly killing our ability to emphasize with others, the very foundation that has kept us together and thriving in the first place.

Reducing negative effects of technology on children

Let’s not fool ourselves, no matter what we do, we will never be able to remove technology in order to protect our children. In fact, as a result of the pandemic, children are forced to be online. School lessons now involve children looking at their screens for several hours a day. While for many this change is novel and can bring about frustrations of various sorts, some are enjoying it. But we must ask the elephant in the room: how do we reduce the negative effect of technology on our children during these difficult times? 

To answer the above question, let us consider the following four ideas below: 

1. Limit and monitor the use of technology—it is so important to know how much time children are using technology and in what ways they are using it. Thankfully, there are a number of ‘parental control tools’ which can help to put restrictions on screen time and content. Please consider using them with apps and web content.

2. Keep up to date with what technology is out there for kids—this will help you to recognize and deal with issues very early on. There are some very dangerous apps out there that can lead children to physically and verbally harm themselves and others. For instance, have you heard of the free social search and instant messaging mobile app/software called,‘MOMO’? If you have not, now you will. This app has reported cases of children (and adolescents) committing suicide in India, the UK, Colombia and Argentina as a result of playing the Momo “suicide game’ on Facebook and on WhatsApp. Not convinced? Do some digging on it for yourself. 

3. Find alternatives to technology—we need to encourage our children every day to read the newspaper, a book, anything that does not involve looking at a screen. Also, help your child find a hobby other than online games such as running, playing football, to a name a few examples. 

4. Create family time!—they often say, ‘a family that does things together, stays together’. Organize family time as much as possible with no electrical devices. This will help to keep everyone physically and mentally attuned to each other and each other’s needs. 

Apart from the above listed, we have found positive ways in which our global community has responded to the pandemic by using technology to help each other and to stay connected. We explore this in our next section.

How communities are responding to the pandemic using technology thus far

A woman holds lights on her balcony during a flash mob launched throughout Italy on Sunday to bring people together even as they are staying home in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Nicolo Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

During this pandemic, we are home-bound. That means that we should not be going outside unless it is necessary, like buying groceries (please don’t hoard) or going to the doctor (make sure you call the doctor before hand to prevent further infections in the clinic!). It also means that we cannot meet our friends and family for an outdoor picnic (yes, we all know how beautiful and warm spring and summer can be!), go to the restaurant, the movies, or see an exposition. In fact, most of these fun places are now closed to the public due to strict government measures that are in place in many countries. Many of us also can’t go to work, school, or university. Our chances for socialisation and physical connection with others have been put on hold. 

Yet, we, as humans, need that connectedness to others. Because well, we are social beings. We are innately wired to be social. And now due to the physical isolation (not social isolation mind you!) the risk for many of us to develop loneliness symptoms ranges from high to very high. But we need to stay connected! And how do we do it??

Almost everyone is online 

It seems the world has gone online, at least anyone who has a smart phone or laptop (or computer). We can find a wide offer of content in education, entertainment, physical activity. Oh, and did we mention that a lot of it is free too?! Universities such as UNAM in Mexico are offering online courses. Different cultural institutions such as The Louvre, The Berlin Philharmonic and New York’s Met Opera are putting their content online. Artists are even live streaming their anticipated concerts from their own homes! How cool, right? And let’s not forget Yoga studios and gyms—they, too, are giving their sessions live!

On a more intimate level, people are going online to stay digitally connected with one another. People are not only sending texts messages that can be perceived as depersonalized messages, they are also making phone and video calls, and often routined calls to friends, family, coworkers, to name a few. These regular phone calls are offering solace in many ways, both personally and collectively. Collectively as social beings, we need and want to see our loved ones’ faces, their expressions, feel that we are close to them despite the physical distance. Part of feeling connected is creating that shared space where we are attuned to each other’s expressions and affects. This is consequently renewing our energy and helping us to fight rising symptoms of loneliness.

Many people are using social media in various ways too. Not to mention that there are many new media platforms popping up left, right, and center nowadays! And good luck trying to keep up with all of them too ! (Hahaha) The much sought out platforms are Facebook, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Instagram, Snapchat, Zoom and Houseparty. In some of these apps, people are forming groups and throwing virtual parties, having virtual happy hours, online dinner parties. Even book clubs are operating online. Who would have thought that being online could be this fun now?? 

Technology as a force for global solidarity 

We most definitely see a rise in global solidarity using technologySupport groups have sprouted online on platforms such as Facebook to accompany and support those in need during this pandemic. This is having a real and timely effect in the community, allowing those in need such as seniors, people with disabilities and people with prior immune system health conditions to receive help in an organized and safe way. Apps like BorrowMyDoggy is putting people in touch with other people who have dogs but cannot go outside due to some pandemic restrictions. Those who are willing or want to walk a dog can now ! How clever and amazing!

For kids there is also a lot of global solidarity. Many will acquiesce that one of the greatest things to come from us being at home more often now is that people are banding together to find ways to keep parents and kids entertained. One initiative out there is celebrities taking to various platforms such as YouTube to read aloud to kids and posting fun stories on Facebook and Instagram. 

On YouTube, there is a channel called ‘StorylineOnline’ where a plethora of celebrities such as Chrissy Metz, Wanda Sykes and Oprah Winfrey read stories to children. Every video also has moving illustrations of the book being read to keep children even more entertained. Have you seen Oprah Winfrey reading ‘The Hula-Hooping Queen’ written by Thelm Lynne Godin and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton? You can watch the video here: https://youtu.be/op9Bc7GWCuw.

For kids (and adults!) who may be extra bored, there is Chatter Pack, a free online space that is run by a volunteer that works for the NHS. On this website you can explore the world ranging from virtual tours of Roman forts and aquariums to more advanced topics such as learning about computer programming skills. And let us not stop here, there is a lot more for adult too on this website! Adults can take free language classes, watch live band streams, read and download free books such as Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few. The choices are endless and there is something for everyone. Here is the link for the website if you are curious to find out more: https://chatterpack.net/blogs/blog/list-of-online-resources-for-anyone-who-is-isolated-at-home?fbclid=IwAR0U0WJNo3obqSGsg0UptPVmEkNQI9nFGp0eD7KmL0jeGrKlHL7bE41kGds

So all in all, it would seem that suddenly having more free time on our hands is doing us more good as a human race than we would have ever imagined! By being aware of its dangers and mindfully using technology in a healthy way, we are consciously rewiring the way we stay connected, albeit digitally. We might find ourselves getting closer to our loved ones than we’ve been in a long time and helping out more in our own communities. If anything is clear in our global predicament is this—we can use technology as a force for global good. 

How are you going to be inspired today to better use technology to stay connected digitally? 😉 Let us know in the comment section or send us a private message to amelie@childbehavioralhealthnetwork.com if you feel more comfortable in doing so. 

From our partners at Child Behavioral Health Network, we wish you well. 

Stay healthy

Stay calm

Stay connected!

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