COVID-19 Q&A: Dr. Elias Aboujaoude on Technology Behaviors

Technology has been a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s given many the ability to work and learn from home, continue to get medical care, and share face-to-face time with family and friends despite physical distancing and stay-at-home orders…not to mention shopping, and a constant flow of information. While these have been enriching and, in some cases, life-saving aspects to our heightened connectivity during the pandemic, potentially problematic relationships with technology have also been brought into stark relief. Our expert on these matters when it comes to mental health is Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, Clinical Professor, Chief of the Anxiety Disorders Section, and Director of the OCD Clinic and the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. One of his specialties is the intersection of technology and psychology.

Dr. Elias Aboujaoude

Before we talk about our intensified relationship with, and dependence upon, technology during COVID-19, perhaps we should acknowledge the disparity in access in the United States. Poorer children are at a disadvantage in this time of distance learning, while adults without the type of jobs that lend themselves to remote work face even greater financial uncertainty. How does this disparity add to the stress and isolation of living in a pandemic? Because of the long term changes COVID is likely to bring, should we be identifying internet and technology access as a basic universal need…like electricity?

Dr. Aboujaoude: Indeed, the internet has become a necessary utility like water or electricity. (This realization is one reason publications and language references stopped capitalizing “I” in internet.) Given that COVID has made the internet indispensable to fundamental needs like education and medical care, it should indeed be considered a basic right. Without taking this view, it is hard to imagine society deploying the effort that is required to level the playing field. Access to reliable, high-speed internet has come to mean access to education.

Those of us lucky enough to have the jobs, skills, and technology that allow us to work from home… the lines between work time and personal time have become so easily blurred. What impact does this have on our personal mental health, and collectively as a society?

Dr. Aboujaoude: This is a big question that I started writing about in my first book on the topic in 2011. Those times seem comparatively naïve from our vantage point today... There is something to celebrate in the convenience that this “blurring” between work time and personal time brings. Who loves spending time commuting? And a strong environmental argument can be made that working from home is much greener than our pre-COVID ways and takes countless cars off the roads. It might even reduce exorbitant housing costs by obviating the need for independent office space. But there is also something substantial to mourn: As internet-related technologies increasingly fuse work and personal life, the ability to unplug disappears and the very possibility of a private zone around one’s person is put into question. Psychological literature has plenty of warnings to offer about the dangers of that. There is another big concern: Ritual is comforting. Across cultures, geographies, religions and civilizations, humans have structured their time into repetitive cycles of working days that alternate with rest periods, holidays and other calendar milestones. The erosion of the boundary between office and home threatens in very real ways these time-honored cycles and, with them, the reassuring comfort that they bring.

How should we be thinking of ‘productivity’ during this pandemic? Especially with the aid of technology at our fingertips?

Dr. Aboujaoude: Economists generally agree that the internet has greatly enhanced economic productivity, especially at the beginning of the millennium. During this pandemic, thanks to tools like Zoom, some people have been surprised how little impact the crisis has on their productivity. However, the danger today, as it was at the dawn of the internet, is that the internet’s effects will be measured chiefly in economic terms. There are huge psychological and cultural shifts afoot, and we would be remiss to ignore them. So, think of the enhanced or preserved productivity, but don’t forget the other attendant effects of our increased reliance on internet-related technologies.

What do you think of the booming use of video conferencing in the work setting? Is there a greater positive or negative aspect of the visual connection as opposed to a telephone conference…perhaps a privacy or accountability aspect? Should there be a limit?

Dr. Aboujaoude: Video may be better than phone, but it is not necessarily as good as in-person. Also, the possibility of back-to-back video meetings can mean no “dead time” between video appointments. Many people are now recognizing that a lot of meaningful things happened in that unscheduled office time, including spontaneous conversations, inspired encounters or ideas. There is newfound appreciation for the water cooler chat! It’s a little bit of a self-serving illusion to think that one endless Zoom meeting from our kitchen is the equivalent of a very busy day in the office.

For personal connections, video conferencing has become a popular substitute for in-person gathering during stay-at-home orders. That’s certainly a positive under current circumstances. But, do you see it becoming a substitute for physical get-togethers in the future…similar to what happened to movie-viewing; choosing to stream a movie at home rather than having a collective community experience at a theater? If so, what do we miss out on, mentally and emotionally, in a more isolated or siloed society?

Dr. Aboujaoude: Absolutely. This process was already underway with the polarization of online communities and echo chambers. Only a few things seemed to still bring people together pre-COVID, including movie viewing and civic, sports or entertainment events. With the existential threat to such gatherings now, a further “siloing” of society might be inevitable.

In a public health crisis like this, staying connected to events and information around town, across the nation, and from all corners of the world can be a life-saver. But there is a downside to a 24/7 bombardment of information. Will you expand on that, and discuss ways to healthfully monitor our consumption?

Dr. Aboujaoude: Read less, but more vertically. Studies show that, from scholars to general populations, most people browse their way through online content in a rather horizontal and superficial manner, with a shocking number of us “liking”, sharing or recommending an article without actually reading it. To be truly informed, we need to read more fully—hardly an easy task given the endless distractions from other content or other online distractions. Like writing, reading has been radically transformed by internet-related technologies, with big implications for our cognitive lives and attention spans.

Quality information, even when the news is difficult, is a necessity for us to make good decisions. False information, though, can be deadly. Hateful content is dangerous. In this time of heightened anxiety and anger, are we even more susceptible to engaging in social media conflicts? And how might online clashes damage our mental health?

Dr. Aboujaoude: These are stressful times for everyone. Heightened stress, combined with increased time spent on social media, is a potentially explosive combination. Impulsivity, aggression and narcissism are traits that are often nurtured by social media, with negative offline consequences to the individual and the community. Self-awareness and an understanding of how one can be transformed, not always for the better, by online platforms, remain our best antidotes today and will continue to be so post-COVID.

People may think that these times of isolation is most difficult for extroverts and that introverts, who may already interact more with technology, are unaffected by social pandemic conditions. Is this a valid assumption?

Dr. Aboujaoude: The common assumption is that extroverts are suffering but introverts are doing just fine thank you. This oversimplifies things and points to a possible misunderstanding of introversion. Introverts like to reflect, often alone or in silence, but they also need “material” for their reflection. Stripped of the ability to step into the world, observe it, process it and reflect on it, they may suffer just as much as extroverts, but in a different way. Not to mention that it has become harder for many people to find true alone time. (*see link below to a WSJ article in which Dr. Aboujaoude is interviewed on this topic)

To end on a more positive note… the use of technology has also been put to very caring and nourishing use during the pandemic from the rise of tele-health to museums and nature preserves bringing the wonders of the world to us. Could this be the start of a greater desire for more culture, more nature…more of what feeds us internally and collectively?

Dr. Aboujaoude: That would be wonderful. I hope these indispensable cultural institutions will survive the current fear of them. Once reopened, they will need our patronage and support to make it and to continue on as glorious physical entities—not just pixelated simulacra.

For more on Dr. Aboujaoude’s work:

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