Can Digital Technology Help Us Through a Time of Crisis?

What are the theoretical reasons for optimism?

Posted Mar 31, 2020

At a time when we must physically separate from others in order to overcome a grave problem, can we turn to digital technology to provide a solution for maintaining some form of contact? Although there is ample evidence that social media can be destructive to the mental health of the individual, when it is used purely on an individualistic basis, could changes in the ways that we use some forms of digital communication turn the effects around into something more positive?

Many of these changes are being forced upon us; we are increasingly using digital communication to maintain our "real" relationships. If we see increasingly positive impacts on our psychological states from using this form of communication, what will be the underlying theoretical reasons?  

Time spent online, or on social media, is not a very strong predictor of any of the potential harms that are associated with these digital technologies. That is not to say that time spent digitally is not a factor, but it is not the only, or maybe even, the most important of factors in producing such psychological harms. Of equal importance, is the use to which the technology has been put. There are a number of studies that have shown that time spent digitally that might be classified as for work or study, does not have the same negative impact as time spent for personal use.

However, it may be that this "work" versus "personal" distinction is not quite accurate. Perhaps a better distinction to make is between time spent digitally that is functional or useful, and time spent trivially. These latter classifications might also map onto time spent digitally in real communication, on a person-to-person basis, versus time spent on fantasy communication, on a persona-to-persona basis.

Many negative social media effects are associated with the latter form of communication. At present, these distinctions may be somewhat vague, but they could go some way to explaining any changes that may be seen in the effects of digital communication use over the coming months.

When people communicate face-to-face, and even when they communicate via the telephone, it has been established that many aspects of their psychological functioning are supported. Importantly, they feel less isolated and lonely. These beneficial effects have not been found reliably, so far, with the majority of communication that occurs through social media. This form of communication has led, typically, to increased loneliness and isolation.

However, as people increasingly use digital means, often of a real-time visual nature (and it is not clear whether this involves "traditional" social media platforms), to communicate with their family and friends, out of a necessity of staying in touch, perhaps we shall see an alteration in the negative pattern of psychological harms, so often associated with social media use. If so, then the explanation must involve, at least in part, the function of the communication, and the degree to which that communication is grounded in the reality of people who really know the communicator.

When a social group communicates with each other, then that social group can determine whether the statements of individuals within that group correspond to reality. The possibilities of making statements that are clearly not true, or of acting out of personae that are not recognised by that group, are greatly reduced. The group acts as a reality check for all the individuals — and that can act to maintain the psychological health of all.

This is akin to an argument, advanced by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, about how the meanings of words are preserved in a language. When the function of the communication is "real," grounded by people who know the person, not the persona, then this may limit the damage that we know social media can do — and, perhaps, turns this form of communication into the positive force that it always had the potential to be, but for which it was rarely used.

A second possibility also exists regarding an explanation of any potential change in the impact of digital communication. Much of the research, to date, has compared face-to-face communication (sometimes telephone communication) with social media communication. This contrast involves many differences, but a major one is the medium through which the communication occurs.

Face-to-face communication involves a real-time, multi-modal exchange of information, including visual and auditory cues (as well as potentially olfactory cues). Leaving aside the latter, social media often involves either textual or visual cues sometimes together, but, up until recently, not often synchronised in real-time. The advent of digital platforms that allow real-time face-to-face communication, like Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom, may be game changers in the sense that they allow all of the cues to be put together and integrated as they occur. Again, note that these forms of digital communication are not the ones that have dominated the market to this point in time.

There is ample evidence that meaning and understanding are dramatically enhanced when people can integrate all of these cues from a communication act, at the same time. Reduce people’s abilities to take in one of these cues, and their abilities to understand the meanings of social interactions also are reduced. This occurs when those cues are removed deliberately, as in many laboratory experiments. It occurs when they are ignored, because we are in stressful situations, and we cannot take everything in at once, so we over-focus on particular cues (over-selection) — how many times have we got the wrong end of the stick in a stressful encounter? It also is a regular occurrence for those who cannot process multiple cues at once, such as for some people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, who sometimes find social interactions difficult. To this point in time, social media, on the whole, has kept us from putting all of the pieces of communication together. As the platforms develop, and as we use them for person-to-person communication (not false persona-to-persona communication), the negative effects may reduce.

Of course, the social media platforms, themselves, have not changed — although we may see a move to the real-time platforms. The manners in which the digital companies manipulate algorithms that maintain people’s usage may not change.  False news is still spread via social media, and this has not changed. Perhaps even the misuses of digital technology by the more malevolent may not change.  All of these things will continue to promote psychological and social harm. Yet, the environment may have totally changed — and the drivers and reinforcers of our digital behaviours may have changed. During this present time of challenge, we may see quite different uses and, therefore, effects, of digital communication. The question is: Will any such change for the better be maintained?

Maybe none of these changes will happen, but people do seem to be using this technology in a more positive and constructive way. It may be that, out of this very challenging, and, for some, really tragic, time will come for some changes, and maybe we will learn to alter the ways in which we do things — albeit at a terrible cost. For digital technology, a theoretical excursion suggests a number of things that we can do to make things better. Don’t waste time and this valuable technology on trivial pursuits — keep it real!