The COVID-19 pandemic has created huge disruptions to our lives while also creating other circumstances and conditions where stress, anxiety and feelings of helplessness or uncertainty can grow. I am sure many of us have felt like pulling the sheets over our heads and only coming out when this is all over. Although some of us are pretty grounded and have adopted self-help routines to cope and manage the stress, others may not be doing so well. For some, the fear of illness, social isolation, stress over lost income and the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding this pandemic have become overwhelming. And with most of us now glued to the television, Internet and social-media – both for news and staying connected – now more than ever we need to ensure we are using these critical technologies in a positive manner to avoid, or reduce, the risks of their own negative mental-health impact.
As a result of the COVID-19 panic, there is no shortage of emotional outrage, fake news, increased security threats and conspiracy theories spreading through the internet and social-media. And with all this time on our hands and so many of our activities restricted, the temptation to stay glued to our televisions, the news and social-media has grown – potentially increasing the factors contributing to our stress. It should come as no surprise then, that we are starting to see a rise in mental-health issues resulting from the stressful impact that this global health crisis is having on our lives. Researchers and mental-health professionals around the world are looking into the psychological impact of this pandemic, half of all Americans are now reported to be suffering from mental-health issues related to COVID-19 and some mental-health professionals are raising alarms around the dangers of spending too much time glued to the media reports on television and social-media.
Although our instinctive fight-or-flight emotional responses to a crisis are normal and even necessary as a survival tactic, too much stress can also be harmful. Prolonged stress is devastating to the cardiovascular system and increases the risk of depression, anxiety and sleep disruptions. But maybe worst of all during a viral pandemic, prolonged stress can also suppress the immune system – something we need fully functioning in order to help fight off any new infections.
“Chronic stimulation of the immune system causes the system to become suppressed overall, and thus become less effective at warding off diseases and infections.“
Prolonged stress also effects our ability to make clear, rational and well-considered decisions. We don’t always think clearly or act effectively while under stress – skills we also need right now. We are no good to ourselves, our family or kids if we allow the fear, stress and anxiety of this global crisis to increase our chances of getting sick by suppressing our immune systems, or impacting our ability to think and act clearly. And don’t forget, children act and feel in part by what they see and feel from the adults around them. So if you want to help yourself and your children through this crisis, take time to care for yourself so you can keep your immune system healthy, reduce your own chances of infection and provide your kids with an example of self-control, calm, strength and wisdom, rather than stress or fear. You can begin this self-help process by implementing healthy and positive technology strategies starting with limiting your screen-time, contact with the news and more positive and intentional social-media use.
The science and psychology behind too much screen-time, excessive and negative news and endlessly/mindlessly scrolling through social-media feeds, have demonstrated various negative effects including increased anxiety and even depression, especially among children and teens. With all of us stuck at home and glued to our televisions and other screens, the potential mental-health risks of excessive negative news/media and too much screen-time are even greater now, especially for those who may find it hard to turn away from the news or endlessly scrolling through their social-media feeds.
More than ever now we need to demonstrate self-control and adopt balanced and positive relationships with the technology in our lives. Taking a break from technology and social-media can have a huge positive impact on mental-health. But at the same time we still need to keep current on the changing dynamics of this pandemic, while also using these same technologies to keep in touch with friends, family and for many of us, our jobs.
Below are some suggestions which can help you to minimize the potential mental-health risks and growing stress associated with too much screen-time, negative news and social-media use surrounding the COVID-19 Pandemic, while still using these same technologies for maintaining social, family or work connections. The world, and the virus (unfortunately), will still be here when you return to the television news or social-media. But even just a few hours away from the news, social-media and your cell-phone, can help your body, and your mental-health, rebound from the strain it has been under these past few weeks.
- Disable Alerts and Notifications. The single most significant positive impact you can have with regards to your digital technology use and mental-health, is to disable all alerts and notifications. The Pavlovian effect of each ring/ding of your smart-phone or tablet is what keeps you addicted to these devices. By disabling alerts and taking back control of using your devices at set times, you significantly lower your risk of becoming addicted to your devices.
- Establish TV Boundaries around watching the news. Consider limiting your time watching the TV news for 15-30 minutes in the morning and 15-30 minutes in the evening, which should be more than enough to stay current on any major global or local updates.
- Establish Internet & Social-Media Boundaries watching the news. If you don’t have cable TV, then you should set the same 15-30 minute morning and evening limits on Internet and social-media news outlets.
- Think Locally not Globally when you go online. Try to focus on what is happening in your own community and how you can contribute to and support ways to keep yourself and your neighbours safe and connected. Maintaining a sense of community and finding ways to help others through service are vital for creating a sense of purpose and reducing feelings of helplessness.
- Stay Connected. Since you also need to use the Internet and social-media to maintain social-connections and staying in touch with friends and family, set a clear intention of connecting with friends and family on a daily basis. There are many tools you can use like Facetime, Facebook Chat/Messenger, Zoom and Skype and with the whole family in a video chat at the same time, it can almost feel like the real thing. You really don’t need to worry about setting a limit (within reason) on these family or friend chat sessions since they are vital for maintaining our social connections.
- Take a Digital Detox Day. Set aside one day a week to stay away from the news, avoid social-media and keep your phone completely turned off. This could be the day you take up that new hobby, start that book you have been meaning to write, pull your guitar out of the closet or maybe start on those house or yard chores.
- Think Critically. When you do go online, try to resist being drawn into sensational news or inflammatory social-media dialog where facts are blurred or exaggerated and more often than not driven by fear and other strong emotions, rather than science. Resist the temptation to react or respond to headlines without actually reading the entire article, followed by confirming sources and the validity of the information. Sites like Snopes, FactCheck and Hoax-Slayer are a few sites to help you fact check the news you find online.