By Ann Constantino,
With schools and many workplaces closed and millions of people sheltering in place over the past three months, our intensely social species has found its social habits undergoing a sometimes disturbing transformation. Many changes are temporary, others are expected to stick around after the novel coronavirus loosens its grip. Social connection is essential to human health. How can we maintain this aspect of our well-being during and beyond the pandemic?
Coincidentally, it was about a hundred years ago during the Spanish flu pandemic that our methods of social connectivity also took a new technological path as the telephone was becoming commonplace in American homes.
The stress caused by converting so much of our existence online is not entirely different from the disruptions the telephone was perceived to cause.
At that time, while many received the new device with open arms for its time-saving conveniences, others remained skeptical. Mark Twain was moved to write, “It is my heart-warmed and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us….may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.”
When the telephone was new, some detractors lamented the lost art of letter writing while others hesitated due to superstitions about the new technology. In 1907, a New York Times writer decried the “rampant rudeness” telephones seemed to inspire in their users.
In 2020 we suffer far less from fear of new devices, in fact, we’ve been trained to embrace them. And what kind of fool cares about rudeness anymore? Yet the stress caused by converting so much of our existence to the online platform is not entirely different from the disruptions the telephone was perceived to cause.
Removing basic human connection from its real-time context has a social cost. When long periods of time are spent in front of a screen, there are physical costs as well.
Everything from eye strain to social awkwardness is normal for casual users of online communication, but for those compelled to work or study or teach from home it has become necessary to adjust to the new format rapidly and the fallout has been emotionally draining and in some cases physically detrimental.
While no studies show specific damage done to the eye or its function of vision from long sessions in front of the computer, screen fatigue is real. Headaches, dry eyes, reduced productivity, and general tiredness are on the rise among those suddenly finding themselves in front of a screen much more. Even before the pandemic, increased screen time among children has led to a rise in near-sightedness.
Indeed, proximity to the screen can be very hard on the eyes, which did not evolve focusing so much of the time on such a close object. For those suffering from screen fatigue, remember to take breaks and follow the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes you spend in front of a computer screen, take at least 20 seconds focusing on something at least 20 feet away.
If you wear glasses, be sure to have lenses that filter the blue light emitted by screens that cause extra stress to the eyes. Try to eliminate glare and reduce strong ambient light to lessen strain. Children suddenly expected to sit in front of a screen to do schoolwork may be especially susceptible to screen fatigue and should be given many breaks. A child’s learning style may make some online learning an impossibility.
Longtime sitting should be avoided whenever possible and good posture should be maintained while seated in front of a screen to minimize neck and back pain. We have written on good sitting practices previously here.
Online meetings, work or social
It is estimated that up to 90% of what is intended to be communicated is lost without social cues and body language.
What is the social aspect of meeting online, whether for casual or work or educational purposes? While the users of early telephones a hundred years ago had their concerns about rudeness, most modern computer users have other types of issues. Social cues are easy to misinterpret or are completely absent due to poor voice/picture synchronization or pixilation. Body language may be restricted by screens that only show a person from the neck up. It is estimated that up to 90% of what is intended to be communicated is lost without these crucial sensitivities. Knowing all this helps, but the experience is still fatiguing, especially because the brain tries to fill in for the blank signals it’s missing.
Time to adjust again.
With bandwidth issues, members of a group or class can easily fall into talking over each other. It’s important to form the habit of letting others finish what they are saying completely before starting to speak. It will actually save time and minimize stress.
During online conferences, it can also be helpful to eliminate distractions as you would in person. Put the phone away, lock up the children and pets, turn off the tube.
Bad lighting can also increase eye strain and social stress. Light yourself gently from the side or front, not from the back.
Anxiety can cause people to babble because online silences are perceived as more awkward than those that occur naturally in a live conversation. It might be helpful to have a friendly “chair” of the meeting to keep others on track, or perhaps set a time limit for the meeting.
For the millions suddenly forced into the online education format, social awkwardness may have been the least of their worries. While thousands of courses have been moved online over the past couple of decades, it has been a natural evolution with an ebb and flow allowing for adjustment and choice and refined decision-making. Not so for all those thrust into the fray last March.
Frustrated instructors at the college level have struggled to learn that it’s not simple conversion but a complete transformation of their courses that must occur to deliver material, and for the K-12 world online delivery runs into issues ranging from learning style differences to social issues such as poor internet connection or lack of quiet study space in the home.
Our abilities to innovate, create, and imagine will need to reach across electronic barriers.
Special education services need to be expanded to provide transcripts or closed captioning or other more elaborate accommodations. Many subjects transform relatively simply while others such as some arts and sciences require materials not all families or newly independent college students have the ability to access.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of support available to instructors and to students making the transition to online ed.
Unfortunately, education budgets are being slashed everywhere in the wake of the economic crisis brought on by management of the Covid-19 crisis. Many experts in the field fear that equity divides already present on campuses nationwide will deepen. Parents will need to advocate for school-aged children and college students will have to speak up for themselves in joining educators on all levels who have been calling for a more level playing field in education for a long time. Education, as a pillar of good health in any society, may have to look different during and following this pandemic.
If it is to be online, then students and educators will need adequate time and support navigating new systems. Our abilities to innovate, create, and imagine will need to reach across electronic barriers.
As social beings, we now must find a way to preserve human connection for our essential social well-being, while making sure the technology needed to do so serves us rather than costing us our physical health.
And once again this tiny virus reminds us we are all in this together. We are all on the same party line.
Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.