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‘At times like these, connection is more important than ever’: How to manage your screen time and social media use during lockdown

‘We have to consider not how much screen time we have, but how we are choosing to use it,’ expert states

Sabrina Barr
Wednesday 30 June 2021 16:58 BST
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The outbreak of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns has placed greater emphasis on the ways and extent to which we use our smart devices on a daily basis.

Having been separated from the majority of our friends and family members due to social distancing measures, many of us are have been relying on platforms such as Zoom and Houseparty in order to keep in touch with our loved ones.

While members of the public might normally go to the gym as part of their weekly routine, many are now partaking in live-streamed fitness sessions from the comfort of their homes in an attempt to maintain structure in their lives.

Activities such as video chats, virtual fitness classes and continuous scrolling through newsfeeds on social media have resulted in an increase in the amount of time many people are spending on their phones — a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed.

Over the past few years, there have been several conflicting research into the impact excessive screen time can have on a person’s mental health. In July 2019, a study published in journal JAMA Paediatrics concluded that young people who spend an increased amount of time in front of digital screens are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.

However, another study published a few months prior by researchers at the University of Oxford found that using devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops “is no worse for teenagers’ mental health than eating more potatoes”.

Given the fact that during these uncertain times, many people are using their devices to communicate with others to stay well-informed on news and to seek out distractions, how should we be managing our screen time?

Quality of screen time is more important than quantity

Dr Alice Good, senior lecturer in the School of Computing at the University of Portsmouth, explains that the “current restrictions on freedom of movement” could have a detrimental impact on people’s mental wellbeing, as some may find themselves feeling increasingly isolated in their surroundings.

As such, social networking platforms could “become a crucial lifeline, not least in helping people to be socially connected even whilst physically disconnected”.

“We have to consider not how much screen time we have, but how we are choosing to use it,” Dr Good tells The Independent.

“Our screens have become a portal to reach out to people, raise morale, but most importantly, to recreate the communities that have been slowly dissipating. We are stronger and more resilient together.”

Dr Good adds that many people, including herself, are having to do more work on their screens than they would have previously. “This is just how it is in current times,” she states.

Nonetheless, the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that people should try to “be aware of how much time you spend in front of a screen every day”, factoring in “regular breaks from on-screen activities”.

Moreover, with schools being closed and all but essential workers being told to stay at home, parents are having to come up with inventive ways to keep their children occupied throughout the day. In this case, digital screens could prove essential.

“Parents don’t need to be feeling guilty right now,” Dr Good says. “This is such a lifeline to so many.”

Becca Cawthorne, senior communications officer at Childnet International, a partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, reiterates this view, telling The Independent that it is “useful for parents and carers to think about what children are doing online rather than the time they are spending”.

“During this time, it is understandable that children’s time online will increase significantly and that this may cause concern,” Ms Cawthorne says, advising that carers decide with their children when devices should be used during the day, discuss when they might be used in a group environment and establish clear boundaries as a household.

Carolyn Bunting, CEO of non-profit organisation Internet Matters, recommends that parents “encourage children to be intentional about their screen time”, which can involve using a digital device for educational purposes or partaking in activities such as Joe Wicks’s daily PE lessons.

Striving to be intentional with screen time carries across to older generations too, particularly as so many of us are spending an increasing amount of time on social media.

Keep a wary eye on social media

While social media can be a fantastic tool for uniting people during troubling times, it can also cause further panic depending on the content that you are exposed to.

If you find yourself feeling anxious when using social media in the current climate, the Mental Health Foundation advises assessing the way in which you spend your time on platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.

“Tune in with yourself and ask if it needs adjusting,” the organisation states.

“Are there particular accounts or people that are increasing your worry or anxiety? Consider muting [hashtags] or unfollowing accounts that cause you to feel anxious.”

Chris O’Sullivan, head of fundraising and communications for the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, suggests focusing the majority of your attention on the “good stuff” while on social media.

“Whatever makes you feel happy, inspired and connected with people who you care about,” he states. “At times like these, connection is more important than ever, and social media, video conferencing and collaboration software can enable that.”

On the other hand, Mr O’Sullivan adds that if you are going to share content, then you should do so “with care” so as to consider the mental wellbeing of others.

“Think about what you are sharing and who it is visible to. Some content you might post innocently can upset or distress others – especially at times like this,” he says.

Dr Good stresses that there is “an awful lot of exaggerated information” on the internet, “and nowhere is that more apparent than on social media”.

“There’s a lot of supposed experts posting their opinions. A lot of people are susceptible to the scaremongering and believing what they’re writing,” the academic states.

What measures should you take when reading news on the internet?

Being cautious about the amount of time you are spending on social media and aware of the impact specific accounts are having on your mental wellbeing is especially important given the unprecedented times we are in.

This also applies to the amount of time you spend reading the news, as doing so to an excessive degree could lead to you feeling overwhelmed.

“Try to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed. Seek the latest information at specific times of the day, once or twice a day if needed,” the WHO states.

The Mental Health Foundation adds that it is “important to find a balance” if the news is “causing you huge stress”.

“It’s best that you don’t avoid all news and that you keep informing and educating yourself – but limit your news intake if it is bothering you,” the organisation says.

“Rumour and speculation can fuel anxiety. Having access to good quality information about the virus can make you feel more in control. The UK, Scots and Welsh government websites are sources of reliable information.”

Dr Good adds that there is “an awful lot of exaggerated information” on the internet, which is why you need to tread carefully when listening to the views “of supposed experts”.

“A lot of people are susceptible to the scaremongering and believing what they are writing,” the university lecturer.

“It’s important to drive the message forward that there are specific sites that people should be checking their information from, and that obviously is NHS, and WHO.”

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