Culture

Surviving screen time and maintaining mental health in a virtual world

Photo by Drew Marshall

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a number of stressors on people worldwide, but combining a college education can possibly magnify those stressors. With increased online and remote classes and less face-to-face interactions, students are isolated now more than ever. 

The isolation brought on by COVID-19 leaves college students with little peer interactions, which can lead to a decline in mental health. And with less in-person instruction and more Zoom classes, it can be hard to ask for help or even see the signs that someone else might need help. 

“I’ve definitely been texting my friends more,” said first-year Fenix Dietz, who is majoring in media arts. “I haven’t been seeing them in person as much which has been hard. We are very social creatures and not having that face-to-face interaction is hard.” 

The sudden loss of physical human interactions can be detrimental to a student, especially when it comes to online learning. At their roots, humans are very social, so going from consistent face-to-face interactions through classes to potentially being locked in a room all day with nothing but a laptop and phone can have a big whip-lash effect. 

“Humans are social creatures, and feeling isolated tends to cause stress. Further, some commonly used coping or stress management skills include socializing with others,” said Amy Roberts, a licensed clinical social worker with Counseling Services. “Virtual connections still have meaning and value, even if they are not the same.” 

Statistics show that college students are among the prime demographic of those affected by mental illness. Virtual learning can further isolate students and leave them without social interactions. Additionally, increased screen time can lead to mental health challenges. 

However, there are resources at Boise State to support students, especially during these challenging times.     

Statistics

College students are under a lot of stress during the school year. Many have to balance a job, school work, extracurriculars and a social life all at once. Having several stressors at one time can lead to a number of negative impacts.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 75% of them experienced anxiety for the first time by 22. This shows that college students fall into the prime age demographic for anxiety disorders. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conducted a survey report on mental health in college students, finding that 50% of college students rated their mental health as below average or poor. One in four people between the age of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness, once again highlighting the common age demographic of college students. 

Diagnosable mental illnesses are not the only challenge to a student’s mental health. According to NAMI, 80% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities, including classes and work, and 45% have felt hopeless. 

Of those students who struggle with a mental illness, 73% have experienced a crisis related to their mental health on campus. Unfortunately, 34% reported that their college did not know about their crisis. Oftentimes, students who struggle with their mental health feel as if they cannot find support or talk to a professional.

Resources at Boise State

A very useful resource that Boise State offers to students is the CARE program, which stands for Campus Assessment Resource and Education. This can be especially useful when face-to-face interactions are rather limited. 

“CARE is a program on campus setup to assess and respond to a variety of concerns on campus,” said Lauren Oe, CARE team chair and Associate Dean of Students. “Typically, we get CARE alerts regarding concerns for someone’s health and wellbeing. Last year we received approximately 550 CARE alerts.” 

According to the CARE website, the program “provides assistance to the university community to help assess and find solutions for managing distressing, disturbing, disruptive, and potentially dangerous behaviors.” 

[Photo of the online CARE alert survey]
Photo by Drew Marshall | The Arbiter

CARE allows anyone to submit a report concerning a community individual who may need help, but someone may not know what qualifies filing a report. 

“We focus our efforts on addressing concerns related to safety and wellbeing. When we are out talking to the campus community about CARE we try to talk about the four D’s —– Distressing, Disturbing, Disruptive and Dangerous,” Oe said. “We also want people to submit alerts when there has been a drastic change in someone’s behavior. For example, if their roommate has always been very social and outgoing, but recently they stopped going to class and are not leaving their room.” 

Balancing college classes, work, a global virus pandemic and anything else life may throw at someone can not only be challenging, but also really scary and lonely. The fact is that no one needs to be alone. According to Oe, Boise State has many resources available to students, faculty and staff. 

“At University Health Services, we have a multi-disciplinary team that includes medical, psychiatry, wellness and counseling,” Roberts said. “We offer medication management, groups, crisis support and therapy services, for example.”

Zoom Fatigue

Boise State has decided to add more online and remote classes this year. While online classes have been utilized by students pre-COVID-19, remote learning has been a new prospect for many students and faculty. Remote classes have a specific set time, similar to an in-person class, except they rely on Zoom or a similar platform to meet for a video conference. 

Soon after many colleges and lower education switched to remote learning, news organizations began reporting on a new term called “Zoom fatigue.” This describes the increasingly common feeling across students and professors alike, saying that Zoom classes and meetings leave them feeling exhausted. 

“Zoom fatigue is real,” Roberts said. “It is a blessing in that we can still connect and access education safely, but staring at the magic picture box all day has some downsides as well.”

One of the downsides is the fact that when one uses Zoom, they are able to see their face in a box right alongside everyone else’s. 

Besides looking in the mirror, people do not see themselves very often, and though it might not be noticeable, seeing ourselves this way is not good for us. Not only is one constantly staring at themself in their little box, but they often believe that everyone else is, too. 

Cyberpsychologist Andrew Franklin said that it is important to remember that people are not fixating on you, just like you are most likely not fixating on them. 

Those using Zoom often believe that others on the call are watching them closely. This leads to students or professors or anyone else focusing more on themself and their face on the screen rather than the information being shared on the call.

“That imaginary audience phenomenon doesn’t necessarily go away [in adulthood],” Franklin said. “People become extremely self-conscious and think that eyes are on them. When in reality, they’re not being scrutinized or criticized to the extent that they think they are.”

This phenomenon Franklin discusses can increase one’s feelings of insecurity, causing them to fixate on themself and potentially lose focus on the content of the call. 

Screen Time and Social Media

As people found it necessary to isolate and stay at home, it was only a matter of time before they turned to their devices to rekindle that sense of social connectedness. Whether texting, calling or browsing social media, increased time using screens is a common coping mechanism, but it has many negative impacts. 

“[My screen time increased] to the point where I actually had to delete Instagram off my phone,” said senior Kelle Weisel, a communication major. “These insecurities, triggers or traumas I’ve had I’ve been trying to move past and get rid of. One of those for me is comparing myself to other people, and I used Instagram a lot to do that. And I stopped, for like a year, and it was so great.”

But with her time using devices and social media increasing, Weasel found herself comparing herself to others once again.

Social media can be a conglomerate of bad news or negative information. With COVID-19, police brutality and natural disasters being trending topics on social media, it can be hard to escape the constant negativity and lead to feelings of hopelessness, as if everything good in the world has disappeared.

“I think for a period of time, all social media was talking about was just COVID or just police brutality,” Weisel said. “I’ve always been a person who really actively tries to help out, to support, but I just couldn’t do that anymore. I just didn’t have the capacity for it.”

According to HelpGuide, excessive social media use can be a common coping mechanism for feelings of depression or loneliness. 

Despite that, social media can increase feelings of missing out by seeing posts of friends together, in turn causing one’s depression or loneliness to return. Subsequently, using social media as a coping mechanism can then perpetuate the very feelings one may be trying to escape.

A study in 2017 found a “significant association between TV watching/computer use with moderate or severe levels of depression.” 

Before the pandemic, a common suggestion would have been to turn the phone or laptop off. While laptops and phones have now become necessities for work and school, what are people supposed to do to disconnect?

Though using devices is now a necessity, there are ways to get by without it having a negative impact. Setting aside a few hours before going to sleep without any screens can help one sleep better, and going for a safe walk outside between tasks increases circulation.

Eye strain is a common issue for students or anyone using devices several hours a day; to combat this, one can refocus on an object in their room besides their computer for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.  

Taking the time to take a break for a few minutes every hour to stretch and walk around will help maintain focus during long homework or study sessions. Downloading a browser extension like Just Focus for Chrome eliminates distracting aspects of websites which can be helpful during those sessions as well.

“It’s all about awareness and perspective,” Weisel said. “Engaging with positive content helps me a lot. If you find yourself thinking negatively, you’re already aware of that, and you can rework it. I was able to do that for a lot of things.”

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