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The pandemic has had a profound effect on how we approach technology and digital communications. When our worlds shrunk to the four walls of our homes, it was the internet that helped go our lives as smoothly as possible. It enabled us to work from home, allowing us to help put food on the table. It allowed our children to learn online, ensuring education remains an important part of their lives. It also helped us stay in touch with our loved ones during times of fear, panic, and uncertainty.
While the internet has been our ally as we all battled with this deadly pandemic, it has not been without its challenges. Toxicity on social media, lack of access to better technology, and stress of being constantly online are a few of the negative effects of the internet that we all had to deal with during this time.
In this discussion, we are quantifying the impact of these effects on our daily lives and mental health. Let’s look at the data to help make sense of how our internet behavior has changed during the pandemic.
According to the telecom intelligence company, Telegeography, the global internet bandwidth experienced significant growth of 35% in the year 2020. Putting this figure in numbers, the international internet bandwidth at the moment is 618 Tbps. But this capacity growth has not been constant around the world; some areas experienced a faster pace than others.
In Africa, the internet bandwidth grew at a pace of 46% from 2016 to 2020, which has been the most rapid globally. Asia came at a close second, with a 40% increase for the same period.
Stronger and speedier internet connections helped us get so much work done during the pandemic. Compared to pre-pandemic figures, video calling experienced a surge of 80% globally. From work to learning, and from friends to family, video calling supported our online education, virtual meetings, and even online award shows so long as we managed to avoid screen flickers, unresponsive touchscreen, sound troubles, and other technical woes on our devices.
According to a report from the Internet Society, video conferencing applications such as Zoom saw a 10X increase in their usage in countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan. Closer to home, video calling through Microsoft’s Teams grew 1,000% in March of 2020 alone, reported by the tech giant. The most commonly used video calling apps during the pandemic have been FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Duo. In fact, Google Meet and Google Duo, reported to have hosted a staggering over 1 trillion minutes of video calls.
All that video calling – while useful – did have its effects. Before 2020 was over, people started reporting feeling fatigued and stressed due to video conferences. While it was commonly dubbed as Zoom Fatigue, the term referred to a general feeling of stress and tiredness due to conducting video calls on several different platforms.
Stanford University conducted a study on the phenomenon and discovered that workers regularly feel exhausted after a day of back-to-back video conferences. And women had it worse. While only 5.5% of men reported feeling fatigued due to all these video calls, it affected nearly 14% of women participants in the survey.
National Geographic reports that this fatigue may stay with us for years, long after the pandemic comes to an end. Here are the ways you can cope with this fatigue.
No amount of digital communication was able to replace our need for in-person human contact. We longed to sit with each other face to face, hug our loved ones, and feel their physical presence around us.
Pew Research recently published a study in which 68% of participants stated that while online interactions have been useful and in many cases extremely meaningful, they have not come close to replacing the real thing. Also, since video calls dominated the work domain, 44% of respondents turned to text messages or group messaging apps to remain in touch with their loved ones.
The internet has not always been the most positive space out there. The sense of invulnerability that comes from sitting behind a screen allows the ugly side of humanity to come out. The pandemic seemed to have worsened it, as people started to spend more and more time online.
To keep hold of their sanity and protect mental health, many people opted to take frequent breaks. According to a survey conducted by Mashable on the anniversary of Covid-19, more than 40% of participants admitted to taking more frequent breaks from social media during the pandemic than they had done before. Misinformation, toxicity, rudeness, and intolerance have been a few of the factors that necessitated these hiatuses.
Pre-pandemic, the device of choice for internet use was the mobile phone. While it is still the #1 device we grab when we want to access the internet, the desktop computer is catching up.
In 2020, 53.3% of the total time a person spent online came from desktop devices. Globally, this figure was 46.6%. This spike had been possible due to the increased use of desktop computers for work or studying purposes. Education, business, and social networks are the three most popular channels people routinely accessed from their preferred devices during the whole of 2020.
While the pandemic helped some people to get richer, most of us continued to struggle. For those who come from less privileged backgrounds, lack of access to the internet and relevant technologies made pandemic more challenging. With the income gap growing, the digital inequality gap also widened.
For older people, those with lower internet skills, and those who do not have home broadband services, digital communications are reduced even further. They were unable to get in touch with their loved ones, could not carry on with WFH assignments, and faced challenges when it came to studying online.
The bag of pandemic’s effects on our internet usage contains mixed items. While some of its effects have been hard on us – increased screen time and WFH stress, etc. – it created some behaviors that will continue long after the pandemic has ended.
Online shopping, telemedicine, online education opportunities, drone deliveries, and online grocery trips have been some of the routines that we’ll take along with us as we bid farewell to the pandemic. These conveniences have identified how the internet always had room to make modern life even easier and flexible. This hybrid lifestyle is far more satisfying and efficient too.
So, why would we ever go back to rush-hour groceries and long waiting hours at the doctor’s office, one wonders. The simple answer is, we won’t. Restaurant meals ordered online, virtual sessions with the doctor, and online classes have become a norm, not the exceptions.
Access to the internet is a fundamental human right. The many ways pandemic affected our behaviors towards this essential technology have included all major aspects of our lives. From work to work-life balance, and from entertainment to healing, the internet worked as a great tool of comfort. While there have been negative effects but they can be mitigated and we have coping mechanisms to deal with them. If you feel more stressed by these changes than normal, seek help and take a break. Your mental health is more important, and the internet isn’t going anywhere.