Psych professor explains social media impact during pandemic

Social media, good and bad

While the majority of provinces are loosening stay-at-home restrictions, social distancing and social media have become important parts of everyday life, but are we spending too much time on our phones?

UBC Okanagan's associate psychology professor Susan Holtzman discusses how we are connecting through social media and if we should be ditching our electronics when practicing social distancing.

When checking your Facebook or Instagram feed, take a second to recognize how you feel before, during and after your time spent on it. Does it positively or negatively impact your mood?

While restrictions are easing, lots of people are still working from home and they might be doing so for some time.This means that people are turning to social media, texting and video calls to have personal contact with one another.

Should we avoid social media while we are out social distancing? Or should we be participating in new apps that have been created to help us stay connected?

"I don’t think people should be too hard on themselves about the time they are spending on social media right now," says Holtzman. "There is very useful and important information being shared out there and it can be a helpful way to stay connected with friends and family. But there is a 'but.' Social media affects people in different ways. For some, it leaves them feeling happier and more connected, but for others it can result in feelings of anxiety, emptiness and inadequacy."

"I would suggest taking a minute to notice how you feel before, during and after your time on something like Facebook or Instagram. Does it pick you up or pull you down? If it pulls you down, maybe you need to cut down. Or maybe you need to use it in a more active way, like sharing pictures, commenting on posts or as a tool to reconnect with old friends."

So what may be the best thing about connecting through social media? And what could be the worst?

"There is no denying that this virus has brought a level of devastation to the human population that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago," says Holtzman. "Through it all, humans continue to have a basic need to feel connected to others and to feel like we belong. Social media has gifted us with the ability to see that we are not alone in our struggles. It has also provided us with access to stories that inspire and make us laugh."

"There is a great deal of fear and anxiety in our society right now, and this is completely understandable. However, there is research to suggest that something called 'emotional contagion' might be taking place when people are spending time on social media. Emotional contagion is the idea that we can catch emotions when we see them online and we can carry those emotions with us into our offline lives. This is another reason to be mindful about what type of social media we are consuming and how it might be affecting our well-being."

Holtzman also shares some useful tips for parents who are trying to keep their children occupied during these unprecedented times.

"Being a parent during the pandemic is hard," she says. "There is no shortage of ideas out there on the internet for how to keep children entertained—from making doll clothes out of old socks, to scavenger hunts, to going on a virtual tour of a museum. There are websites that can transport you anywhere in the world, to Africa to watch gorillas in their habitat or to beaches in Hawaii. But the very presence of all of these ideas can be overwhelming."

"Whatever you do, keep your goals simple and realistic. Get outside at least once a day, ideally, to do something physically active, sing or dance to your favourite music, cook or create something together as a family, call or video-chat with a friend or family member. Now is the time to be compassionate to ourselves and understand that we are all just doing the best we can."

Holtzman's research tells us that forms of digital communications do not give people the same boosts of moods s an in-person interaction would.

"I think our society is now feeling these effects first-hand," she says. "Online communication is the only option that many of us have to stay in touch with our friends and family right now, especially those who are elderly or medically at-risk, but it often doesn’t feel as satisfying as in-person communication."

"Generally speaking, research suggests that technology that provides us with more visual and auditory cues, like video-chatting or voice calls will help us to feel more connected, compared to things like texting or social media, which can absolutely still have benefits. It is safe to say that there is nothing good about a pandemic, but I suspect we will see some very innovative and creative new technologies emerge out of this period that will help us to stay connected when distancing measures are in place."

Holtzman has investigated how social media can be a portal for false information. She reminds people to only get their pandemic related information from credible websites such as the BC Centre for Disease Control.

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