Isolation during Covid-19 pandemic

Isolation due to the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, forced us to engage with each other and our world in an almost exclusively digital platform. The popularity of group communication platforms such as Telegram, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other digital interactive programs soared during lockdown. Schools, businesses, religious meetings etc. became dependent on these video conferencing apps. Today, we are reliant on these platforms to mitigate the isolation of lockdown. It has become a part of our lives. To be perfectly honest, it will always be a part of our lives.

Although we cannot go into excessive detail on the effects of lockdown in all aspects of our lives, we need to use our exposure to isolation due to this pandemic to draw a parallel and prove a point. In the modern age, convenience is probably one of our most sought-after, if not the most sought-after commodities. As Andy Crouch writes in The Tech-Wise Family, technology makes things easy, everywhere.[1]

Use of digital technology during lockdown

Therefore digital technology and more specifically, portable digital devices were created. It made an unfathomably large world fit in the palm of our hand. Along with this, the realization also set in that our exposure to the digital world could also have a negative effect. However, it would be an experiment in which the results would be pending for many years and even decades to come. The fact of the matter is that the lockdown accelerated these anticipated results significantly. Therefore, we now have acute firsthand experience of excessive digital exposure in a relatively small amount of time. The effects, consequences and statistics speak for themselves.

Covid-19 pandemic and internet use

Protecting Children in a Digital Age

During the COVID-19-imposed lockdowns across the world, the internet offered never-ending distractions and entertainment for people forced to stay home. Nearly 90% of students were physically cut off from their schools. The internet has officially been the major source of educational materials, and technology has become necessary to enable students to access academic work, interact with one another, and do what students need to do most: play.

Yet there are also significant risks for children in the digital world. They include sexual exploitation and abuse, cyberbullying and harassment, exposure to harmful content, incitement to suicide or life-threatening activities, privacy violations and exploitative digital marketing practices

Additionally, students seem to seek refuge in entertainment and social interaction on various digital platforms due to restrictions on their outdoor activities.  This, in turn, led to a rapid increase in maladaptive and dysfunctional behaviours among all age groups. At the crux of this lies excessive internet consumption. Even middle-aged, and older adults who were not spending much time on the internet previously, have been forced to adapt to online activities. This is due to obligations such as the shift of conversion from on-site workplaces to internet-based work-from-home environments and the need to stay updated about COVID-related news and family.[2]

Statistics on digital consumption

Let us look at some alarming statistics on the increase in digital consumption over the lockdown period:

  • Netflix and BBC verified 16 million new subscribers in the first 3 months of 2020, nearly a 100% increase from the new subscribers during the last few months of 2019.[3]
  • A preliminary study in China comparing data between October 2019 and March 2020, reported a sharp increase (23%) in the occurrence of severe internet addiction, with a 20-fold rise in the dependence degree of those already addicted to the internet.[4]
  • In 2019, Pornhub, one of the world’s largest pornographic video-sharing websites, received 42 billion visits – roughly 5 times the world’s population in a single year.[5]
  • In April, Microsoft disclosed that the number of subscribers to its Game Pass service had reached 10 million. Among those subscribers, Microsoft reported a 130-percent increase in multiplayer engagement across March and April.
  • Twitch, the most popular video game streaming platform, saw 1.49 billion gaming hours watched in April ÔÇö a 50% increase since March.
  • Steam, a popular PC gaming platform, hit its all-time high concurrent user count at over 20 million people in March.
  • Epic Game’s Fortnite has also grown to new heights: An in-game Travis Scott concert saw over 12 million concurrent views from players, and in April alone, players racked up a combined 3,2 billion hours in-game. That is in a single month.

Digital risks

These statistics can go on and on and are freely available on the internet. This serves just to indicate what happened to internet use on a global level during the lockdown periods. The increased online dependency for people around the world is also creating new opportunities for different forms of cybercrime.

Many forms of online abuse have skyrocketed including violence against women and girls, human trafficking and extortion. These risks have the potential to seriously harm children. However, it is important to remember that not all children encounter significant risks online; and that for those who do, not all of them translate into actual harms.

Consequent effects of unrestricted screen time

Nonetheless, the effect of the lockdown is evident in our children and countless telephone calls and emails from desperate parents seeking help as well as schools asking for online meetings to educate the parents and teachers. We also saw the effects of excessive screen time on our own children and close family members.

In one-on-one therapy, we dealt with young boys with severe aggression, ADHD, disciplinary problems, sleeplessness, and weight gain due to extreme gaming hours. Teenagers with depression, anxiety, fear, and suicidal tendencies due to social media use, reading and believing everything they read. Sex offenders have found in this development a tempting opportunity to access a broader group of potential victims.

There was a massive increase in online extortion. Children chatting to strangers online, distributing nude pictures and the list and testimonies are endless. The effects of isolation through lockdown as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic were devastating. We are still anticipating the full impact of social devastation to come, realizing that this was only the beginning.

Restriction of mobility

We are aware that, especially children’s mobility was restricted. More than adults, they were completely confined to the four walls of their home. Reinforced by the tremendous amount of “free time”, children’s lives shifted even further from the real world into an online virtual one. Video calls with friends and family, social media interaction, online games, educational use, TV series watching, or surfing the internet were commonplace. These were often used to reduce stress and anxiety and/or to alleviate depressed moods and boredom. Parents allowed screen time because there was not much else to do.

Children had to have phones, tablets, data or Wi-Fi because all the schoolwork had to be done digitally. Even though, as a parent, you might have become aware of excessive screen time, you could not remove the digital device in this case. In doing so, these potentially addictive behaviours were allowed as a means of alleviating the stresses of daily living (often reflected as “escapism”), avoiding conflict and dealing with emotional stress.

Although these behaviours typically constitute non-problematic (or perhaps even healthy) coping strategies, for a minority of individuals, they can lead to a reduction in social engagement and other activities of daily living. As a result, the tendency to use such activities as alleged coping strategies in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic increases the risks considerably and may develop into habitual behaviour, extremely difficult to break.

ICT as a lifesaver

On the one hand, communications technology was a lifesaver. Working and studying remotely was made possible. Digital access and digital skills are thus vital for every child. Children who are not connected risk exclusion and disadvantage. In return, for many, the psychological impacts of isolation were reduced by having contact with friends and families. The provision of access to entertainment and online services providing physical exercise was made possible through technology. People could order groceries and food online and have counselling sessions from the comfort of their own homes and in the end it helps in restoring growth during this economic downturn.

Although there is a rise in online learning education has changed dramatically. Technology used for this purpose is not new, but its usage has increased multifold with improved interface and user experience. Learners, teachers, trainers and guardians are now accepting it as a part of the learning process and delivery; mainly in response to social distancing. 

We need wisdom

These are in short some of the negative consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic with regards to ICT. The scope of this article is not about a thorough exposition related to the pandemic and the increase in digital dependency. Rather, it is to shed some light on a very difficult, very sensitive subject. Most parents will reply saying: What was I supposed to do? And it is completely understandable. We are not to condemn or judge anybody, especially during an impossible situation like a full or partial lockdown. Better to acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly and to gain wisdom and understanding. It is to agree with the words of Solomon: “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness.” (Ecclesiastes 2:13 NLT)

[1] Crouch, Andy (2017) The Tech-wise family. Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. Baker Books.