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The current health crisis has forced the competent institutions to introduce strict measures to prevent further contagion and preserve physical health, but the importance of maintaining mental health, which can be put to the test in a particular situation, should not be neglected or lightly understood. Humans are social beings, and from a very early age mirrored neurons allow us to unconsciously emotionally attunement with others by observing subtle and seemingly invisible facial expressions. Because the need for love and belonging is one of the basic human needs, situations in which a person is socially isolated from others will be interpreted by the body as dangerous or threatening.
The importance of face-to-face contact and social support
Studies show that face-to-face contact releases many neurotransmitters that create psychological resilience in humans as they release oxytocin, a hormone responsible for increasing confidence in others and lowering cortisol levels, leading to reduced feelings of stress and anxiety.
Children and young people especially need social contacts, primarily with family and then with peers, because their social development takes place precisely through interactions with others. Healthy social development can contribute to the child in many other areas including language and speech development, building self-esteem, strengthening school skills, conflict resolution, empathy, etc. Thus, the social part of development cannot in any way be isolated from the overall development of the individual.
Social support in children is associated with a number of positive outcomes later in life such as greater satisfaction with life and easier coping with high levels of stress. Lack of social support for children and young people, on the other hand, may be twice as reliable a predictor for the development of PTSD than the severity of the traumatic experience. Previous research has shown a significant correlation between social isolation and many health problems across all age groups. The reason is that long-term social isolation can activate neural mechanisms for fear and aggression. One survey during the 2002/2003 SARS epidemic show that quarantine can lead to significant stress, depressive symptoms or even PTSD, and other studies have shown that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by almost 30%.
The current situation in which we are forced to be at a certain physical distance or even in self-isolation is at odds with the findings of research on mental health that, among other things, relies on regular social contacts. However, maintaining close social relationships for the duration of self-isolation is not impossible, especially in times when significant communication between people takes place through electronic devices with Internet access.
Numerous studies have come to the same conclusion that overuse of social networks is significantly associated with a sense of social isolation. But current circumstances put us in a situation where electronic devices are almost the only way to make social contact with others.
Considering statistics suggesting the most risky older age groups are in the current health crisis, they are encouraging the results of a survey conducted in 2018 that found video calls can significantly reduce the risk of depressive symptomatology in people over 60 years of age. Although older age groups often rely on modern technology mainly due to lack of knowledge, negative attitudes, or age-related conditions (such as impaired vision or hearing), research shows that more than 50% still use cell phones and computers on a daily basis. Therefore, educating seniors to video calling applications (such as Skype or WhatsApp) and providing basic IT support could be of great importance to them as well as to our mental health, whether to our parents, grandparents, or other older members of our family or the wider community.
Maintaining social contacts through electronic devices in children and young people
In addition to the aforementioned video calls with grandparents, parents should encourage children to keep in touch with peers from school and friends, which can be of great importance in the context of maintaining a routine, but also due to the fact that social connection and support have been shown in previous studies highly associated with emotional resilience. Video calls, as noted earlier, are potentially better options than mirroring neurons and being able to see the facial expressions of the person we are talking to than texting through apps or social networks, or texting.
Certainly, the negative aspects of overuse of electronic devices on children’s development should not be omitted or neglected. For the duration of the social distance, children and young people monitor the school precisely through electronic devices – TV or computer. The aforementioned monitoring of school obligations also falls under the ‘screen time’, that is, the period spent in front of an electronic device. However, children do not initially understand the time spent in front of the screen regarding their schoolwork as real time spent in front of an electronic device because they are accustomed to spending time on digital devices and consoles with their leisure activities, play and fun. All of the above is a risk for difficulties that can occur due to a significant amount of time spent in front of (small) screens (problems with sleeping and sleeping, obesity, behavioral difficulties, violent behavior, etc.).
By setting clear rules for how much and when children can be on electronic devices and game consoles, a clear routine is established that they will stick to if adults do not give in and relent to children after the initial upheaval and resentment. On the other hand, many parents are currently home, which allows them to better monitor their children’s interactions with technology.
Earlier research has found a significant association between the use of social networks and a sense of social isolation, but experts point out that in this extraordinary situation of physical distance and real isolation, communicating via electronic devices can be of great help in maintaining satisfying social relationships. Therefore, it should be taken into account that the specific situation in which we find ourselves cannot be compared to regular everyday life, so parents could still see through their fingers in the coming period regarding the use of electronic devices to communicate with their peers (especially for video calls or calls). On the other hand, there is no need to lose structure, that is, it is advisable to arrange with the children the time they will spend in the day and / or week in front of the small screen in play, fun and relaxation (rather than learning and schooling) so that there is no excessive exposure electronic devices. Here are some more guidelines:
Practical guidelines for limiting the use of electronic devices for the duration of the physical distance measure:
Written and illustrated by: Krešimir Prijatelj, MS psychology
Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center can not be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.