Dubai: Ever since the global outbreak of coronavirus, screen time rules across homes have just disappeared into the woodwork. With e-learning, e-working, e-shopping and e-socialising becoming the buzzwords, the increasing time people began to spend on social media gained a new legitimacy.
But as psychologists and tech experts warn us, our need for social distancing could well extend to social media distancing too - if we don’t watch out.
“The world has been moving online, with every aspect of life that I can think of having an online branch, a vein that connects us to it in some way. This connection can provide the most significant benefits we’ve ever seen, or it can push people deep into the clutches of isolation,” says Devika Singh Mankani, chief positive psychologist with Fortes Education.
Like the radio during the World Wars
As Mankani sees it, "The role of the social media in the current pandemic climate mirrors that of the radio during both World Wars. It can provide information for health, connect us with family and friends and even allow us to change the world, if we are so inclined, by creating and participating in campaigns that aim to inform or solicit help. It’s no surprise then that Whatsapp use surged 40 per cent and other platforms have had millions of new and additional users during the COVID-19 crisis.”
Harry Horgan, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre, agrees. “Data certainly indicates that people are using social media more than ever, both in terms of the percentage of the global population accessing social media, and in terms of the number of hours spent per day on social media sites.”
From a ‘sin’ to a ‘ritual’
Ali Shabdar, MEA regional director of tech major Zoho Corp, says, “It is no secret that during the stay-home period, people had more time to spend and excessive screen time turned from a sin to a ritual. If we use social media to get news from trusted news outlets (and not the plethora of questionable sources with ulterior motives) or if we use it to stay in touch with family and close friends (who don’t add to your stress), an hour or so a day might be justified. But with all the social noise, fake news, COVID-19 myths, increasing anxiety and hate mongering, we’re way better off baking, reading, or even binge-watching something.”
It’s a thin line between use and overuse
As with any human choice, social media overuse can have several implications, the most worrisome being the potential for addiction which resembles any other addiction, including withdrawal and neurochemical reactions, cautions Mankani.
“With all the wonderful benefits of social media, families are not necessarily more connected with each other. With everyone glued to their devices or preoccupied with their online world even when they are sitting with family, there are few opportunities to foster relationships. In fact, social media addiction, as with any other addiction can destroy families,” she says, adding that adults can be emotionally unavailable to each other and children will have to suffer the consequences of this neglect.
“Disconnected couples can live parallel lives and end up in marital distress and divorce. The outcome can be dire,” she warns.
Horgan says it is important to consider functional impairment. “A question we might ask in this regard is does your social media use have negative effects on your work, leisure, relationships, health or sleep?. If so, it can be worth examining. Social isolation is well-established as detrimental to mental health. In the current context, increased engagement with social media is probably to be expected, and may serve as an important protective factor for our mental health when connecting face-to-face is impossible.”
Nothing can replace the sound of a human voice
According to Mankani, “We are currently experiencing a tremendous crisis. For many people, the online window to the world helps them stay connected with the news, work, friends and information from community based organisations to help them get through the day. So, while using these platforms as needed, my advice would be to try to balance the online world with the offline world.”
She said nothing can replace the sound of a human voice. Citing a study of preteen girl, she said researchers found that after experiencing a stressful event, girls who heard their mothers’ voices experienced a surge in the bonding-hormone oxytocin and a notable drop in cortisol, which is the stress hormone. These effects were not observed in girls who were only allowed to communicate with their mothers over text messages after a stressful event.
“We have to make a conscious choice to pick up the phone, call people we are worried for, express that we miss each other using our words and our voices not a meme or an emoji. The comfort of a human voice can innoculate us against loneliness, which is a modern day epidemic in itself,” she says.
At what point is social media distancing necessary?
“Social media needs to be harnessed in positive ways and used responsibly. There are great benefits to social media use but just as a pill can save or harm, we need to find our limits based on personalised parameters of mental and physical health, and sometimes it takes a loved one or a family doctor to point this out,” concludes Mankani.
There can be other dangers too
Emad Haffar, Head of Technical Experts, Kaspersky, a cybersecurity firm, says, “Social media applications have become a major part of our lives especially under the current circumstances. But as social media usage increases, it is important to be aware about the dangers that exist on these platforms and take the necessary steps to be safe online.”
One of the main issues with social media, he says, is privacy. “It is important to protect your data from falling into the wrong hands and potentially be used against you by cybercriminals looking for financial gain or another third party. To prevent this from happening, it is important that when using social media platforms to take the following steps:
• Check media privacy settings on the social media applications to ensure that they are on and use strong passwords for all social media accounts
• Don’t open or store unfamiliar files, as they could be malicious
• Don’t share passwords for your online accounts with anyone
• Make sure your internet connection is secure
• Don’t use the same password for more than account
Dos and don’ts to strike a balance online
Do keep personal information limited – Sharing is a large part of what it means to be on social media but it is important to be mindful and limit sharing information that is personal such as credit card details, phone numbers and main email addresses.
Do use messaging apps with end-to-end encryption - It is important to remember that not all social networking apps come equipped with end-to-end encryption. It is a good practice to use applications that offer end-to-end encryption
Don’t share main e-mail addresses and keep phone number private – Do not share your personal information with strangers over social networks as it can be misused
Don’t use public Wi-Fi to conduct important online activities - Public Wi-Fi networks usually do not encrypt traffic, which effectively means that cybercriminals on the same network can try to snoop on your traffic