Online Fatigue – A Psychologist’s Inside Perspective During the Covid 19 Pandemic
Sally Goddard Blythe
It is now more than 5 months since we first went into isolation. The restrictions have been gradually been released and from this month, my partner, who had to shield, is officially allowed out.
During these months I have learned a lot – how to bank and shop online, teach to all parts of the world, give webinar interviews and carry out client consultations via Zoom – but I have also learned this system of virtual communication, while wider ranging, is no substitute for engagement in real time and space.
My laptop has come to feel like my slave master. It is energy sapping rather than energy giving and forces me to think and respond according its own programmes designed to fit a digital model; when working with large volumes of information which require frequent cross referencing it places an enormous strain on short term memory in a brain that is used to being able see or look up the complete picture in printed form. Even my computer’s memory says that it is nearly full!
A daily flow of emails requiring answers to individual questions are a constant demand and distraction. Whereas answers can often be provided in seconds during conversation, these must be listed, only to prompt further questions via several emails before a solution is found. The inevitable delay involved in resolving simple questions places strain on working memory with “unfinished business” becoming a background theme to all current projects. As with any form of baggage, the more you carry, the greater the strain on the system.
Distractions in the form of projects on hold, interruptions from reminders, social media and unwanted advertisements (not all can be switched off), siphon attention from the primary task in hand, reducing efficiency. (It can take up to 15 minutes for the brain to recover the same state of focused attention following an interruption). Competition for attention also interferes with the “reward” of having completed tasks, and of being able to consign information to long term memory. Small wonder that many employers are beginning to report malaise amongst staff forced by the current situation to spend long hours working from home online.
Physically working in this way is sedentary with the visual system being forced to focus at one distance for long periods of time. Although some of this can be ameliorated by taking regular breaks engaging in a different activity, sometimes the demands of work make this difficult to do.
My area of specialisation involves observing reactions in the body to various stimuli. As any film or television studio technician will tell you, camera angle, lighting, focus and timing can all have a profound influence on what the observer actually sees. Perspective matters.
Client consultations take twice as long for several reasons: The connection is not always stable resulting in delay and unsynchronised communication. This makes giving instructions and observing physical tests online very difficult, adding to compliance issues when working with children. It is not possible to engage with clients, instruct, observe and type up notes simultaneously, so all session notes have to be typed up following the consultation. On the positive side, technology has enabled us to continue monitor clients’ progress online, update intervention and see them through a programme. It has reduced travelling and time away from work to attend sessions for parents, but it is also increasingly clear that online sessions are at best, a substitute for in-person consultations.
In the past research on the effects of electronic media on children’s brains has raised concerns about attention, mood, self- regulation and social interaction. Insidiously some of these factors may be beginning to affect adults, forced to spend more time engaged with their computer than with people.
Below is an extract from my book Raising Happy Healthy Children, written a number of years before the Covid 19 pandemic.
“While rapid shifts of attention are useful in primitive environments where danger could come from any source, they are not good for processing individual elements of a narrative or remembering detail, as many of us know if we have had too many interruptions when trying to complete a task at work. Frequent shifts in attention give an overall impression but do not improve recall.
Martin Large talking about use of electronic media in general says,
“TV viewing is highly addictive, a plug in drug[i]. People spend long hours watching, say they cannot switch off, the longer they watch they less they can turn it off, sacrifice many important social activities, and report withdrawal symptoms. Recently, researchers have found that TV is not just habit forming, but that dopamine, strongly connected with a number of addictions, is implicated. Dopamine rewards our brains for paying attention, especially to stimulating, fast paced images. So Aric Sigman[ii] concludes that, ‘We are being chemically rewarded for looking at a screen full of changing images and becoming neuro-chemically dependent.”
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward systems in the brain, as well as the inhibition of involuntary movement when at rest. It is one of three neurotransmitters collectively known as monoamines, of which the other two are norepinepherine (noradrenaline) and seratonin. Norephinepherine acts as a key chemical in mediating the physical changes involved in arousal and it is important in the regulation of hunger and alertness. Seratonin is important in the regulation of sleep, particularly the onset of asleep. Anti-depressant medications such as Prozac act by blocking the uptake of seratonin at the synapse increasing the availability of seratonin in the brain. Certain carbohydrates particularly potatoes are converted into seratonin when eaten, a chemical connection which goes some way to explaining why depressed individuals tend to increase their consumption of carbohydrates. This may be the body’s natural attempt to restore the balance of the brain.
Dr Amen in his book “Healing ADD: The Breakthrough Program That Allows you to See and heal the 6 Types of ADD”, says that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) are particularly susceptible to the addictive properties of electronic games. A study published in the journal Nature carried out PET scans on subjects playing action video games. They discovered that the basal ganglia, where dopamine is produced, were more active when playing the game than at rest. Amen goes on to say that, “both cocaine and Ritalin (a stimulant drug used to treat the symptoms of ADHD) work in this part of the brain as well”. One of the properties of Ritalin is to make more dopamine available to the brain. “Video games bring pleasure and focus by increasing dopamine release. The problem with them is that the more dopamine is released, the less neurotransmitter is available later to do schoolwork, homework, chores and so on[iv]. While the brainwave theory partly explains the dulling effect of electronic media on the brain, the neuro-chemical theory explains some of its addictive properties with the let down or withdrawal symptoms that follow.”[v]
While the developing brains of children were thought to be particularly susceptible to these influences, my personal experience over 6 months of lockdown has made me question whether adults given long term exposure also start to suffer from similar effects?
It is not all bad. Technology has enabled many of us to continue to work through extraordinary circumstances; obtain necessities when unable to go out; maintain visual communication with family, friends and colleagues and to provide goods and services. Other personal benefits of the lockdown have been finding beautiful new countryside on our doorstep, exercise, enjoyment of the simple things and living for the day, but as my primary mode of working continues to be online, I ask, am I the only one who is beginning to feel computer weary?
[i] Winn M, 1985. The Plug-In Drug. Viking. New York.
[ii] Sigman A, 2005. Remotely controlled. Vermilion Press.
[iii] Olds J, Milner P, 1954. Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brains. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. 47:419-427.
[iv] Amen D, 2001. Healing ADD: The breakthrough program that allows you to see and heal the 6 types of ADD. GP Putnam & Sons. New York.
[v] Goddard Blythe SA, 2018. Raising happy healthy children. Hawthorn Press. Stroud.