Zoom meetings. Distance learning. Online shopping. The coronavirus pandemic has caused us to spend more hours than ever facing a screen. While that allows us to carry on many of our daily activities safely, it may also bring with it some concerns.

“While people are glad to have access to technology like Zoom and Facetime to stay connected with friends and family, this does not fully meet the need for social interaction that human beings need to thrive,” said Dr. Emily Sander, psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. “The reality of human connection is that aspects of communication that build trust and connection, such as touch and eye contact, cannot be accomplished via video technology.”

Online meetings she has observed during the pandemic involve more uncomfortable silence as well as less social chatter, less laughing than pre-pandemic in-person meetings. She said this might be caused by failing to activate our “mirror neurons,” which are brain cells that allow us to reflect the facial expressions, body language, and emotions of others.

Emily Sander, psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. Submitted photo
Emily Sander, psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. Submitted photo

“When humans are together, these mirror neurons activate automatically, giving us a wealth of data that fosters communication, connection, and learning,” Sander said. “When we are not able to be physically present with others, we are left without much of this data, and the quality of the interaction is diminished.”

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Relationship equity

Jessica Wiskow, school counselor at Ellsworth High School, said extended online meetings and classes have caused Zoom fatigue in some of the teachers.

“So much of our communication comes from nonverbal cues, and when in groups where people are only focusing on the main speaker many nonverbal cues are missed,” Wiskow said. “I think it’s hard to feel engaged and supported when half of the message is lost in translation.”

She said the strength of human relationships is critical in education. Teachers and staff at Ellsworth High School have been working

Jessica Wiskow, counselor at Ellsworth High School in Ellsworth. Submitted photo
Jessica Wiskow, counselor at Ellsworth High School in Ellsworth. Submitted photo
hard to build solid relationships with students, according to Wiskow.

“I feel this paid off last spring when we were shut down,” she said. “We were able to cash in some of the relationship equity we built with the students to engage them during a very scary time.”

Anxiety, etc.

Another concern about screen time is the drug-like effect it can have on the brain, because screen-based activities trigger the release of dopamine, which Sander said is often called the “happy hormone.”

These activities “impact the reward system in the brain in a way that is similar to addictive substances or addictive behaviors, like gambling,” Sander said. “This was an issue in households across the world long before COVID-19, but the limitations of the pandemic have made finding alternatives to screentime far more difficult for many individuals and families.”

For students, distance learning has created problems with appropriate study spaces, anxiety, parental support, and learning styles.

“If there is one thing that this pandemic has confirmed for me is that every individual child and adolescent learns differently,” Sander said. “The primary motivator that makes many students excited to go to school each day is simply not the same in a distance-learning format, and that is getting to spend time with friends.”

Get up and move

Sitting for hours in front of a screen is not healthy for anyone, Sander said, and she encourages families to set up “screen free” times and model healthy boundaries in using devices. Breaking sessions of screen time up with other activities, especially those that involve some movement like sports, yoga, games or family walks can provide relief from added screen time.

“Movement supplies oxygen to the brain, promotes the creation of new brain cells, and helps those brain cells make connections,” Sander explained. “Movement also increases energy, reduces stress, and soothes the mind and bodily tension.”

With many families involved in remote work as well as distance learning, it may be harder to keep to some standard routines like getting enough sleep.

“I firmly believe that every household should have a tech curfew where screens are put away at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime each night,” Sander said.

Sander said some adults who feel limited using technology might experience more distress when they attempt to communicate and struggle with the technology.

“While there are many challenges related to the increase in screen time in all of our lives, every challenge we face in life is an opportunity for growth,” Sander said. “As we learn to navigate this very new world of heavy screen use in schools, the workplace, and home, I encourage individuals and families to examine their individual needs and to learn to advocate for those needs whenever possible.”

As COVID cases continue to increase, no one knows how long our current situation will last, how long the additional screen time will be our lifestyle. Because mobile devices and tablets are relatively new, Sander said our understanding of the impact of screen time on the human brain is also new and is increasing.

While some of the effects may be negative, she recognizes one thing that gives her hope.

“Humans are capable of resilience,” she said. “We can dig in and be resilient for a while, then we see a bit of a crash. People have to regroup and let themselves experience the grief that comes along with all of the changes that we are seeing, then pick ourselves up and continue. My suspicion is that is what we are going to see over time.”