Technology adoption during pandemic has both harmed and helped, writes Jennifer Moss


In some ways, the pandemic has slowed the world down.

It’s meant our schedules have less going out all the time, more dining at home and it has reduced travel to almost nothing.

But, in some ways, the pandemic sped the world up and it’s had an impact on wellbeing.

The rapid adoption of new technology in the past year and a half may have been fatiguing, but it also forced an emergence of new possibilities.

How much tech do we consume?

The short answer is: Too much.

Pre-COVID, around three per cent of Canadians worked remote. Recent data from Stats Canada says that number is now 32 per cent. Just this increase alone will have us consuming infinitely more technology.

For example, in December 2019 there were 10 million active daily users of Zoom and now that’s around 250 million. Microsoft Teams has 115 million daily active users — that’s a 53 per cent increase since the pandemic started.

A report by Sandvine, a company based in Waterloo, Ont., found that overall internet traffic grew by more than 40 per cent between Feb. 1 and April 19 last year, with almost all of that increase occurring in March and April — right at the onset of the pandemic.

The number of minutes of general online news consumption for Canadians increased by 95 per cent during the pandemic. The number of minutes spent on food sites increased by 45 per cent. 

Social media platforms gained 490 million users this year (that’s a 13.2 per cent increase, year over year) and social platforms gained 15 new users every second in 2020.

As you can tell, the amount of time we’re spending on virtual platforms for work, consuming digital news content and lifestyle content — plus the time spent on social media is astronomical. This has definitely been a year of mass adoption.

Impact on well-being of excessive tech use

Yes, in many ways it is unhealthy.

Let’s take video conferencing for example: Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms. He shares four reasons why the technology leads to exhaustion:

Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact. Bailenson suggests that when someone’s face is that close in real life, the brain interprets it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. This keeps individuals in a hyper-aroused state for extensive periods of time.

Spending all day looking in a mirror is exhausting. And it can have negative emotional consequences. According to the Canadian Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery — plastic surgeons and dermatologists can’t keep up with the demand. Some are calling it the “Zoom boom.”

It’s harder to pick-up non-verbal cues. People are exhausted by trying to assess facial expressions or gestures. There are also so many distractions for both the presenter and the audience — you can be speaking and see someone pick up their phone or answer a family member in the background. On the flip side, people are in meetings with millions of distractions that weren’t there before.

It’s sedentary. One study found that we are spending an additional four hours each day sitting while at home, with 18 per cent adding more than seven hours of sitting time to their days in 2020.

Hacks to solve video meeting burnout

Although some of us will return to in-person work in the coming months, some will remain working virtually. To address negative impact on our mental health, here are a few simple ways to reduce digital fatigue caused by all that video face time.

  • To stop staring at other faces too much, take the image out of full-screen and minimize face sizes.
  • To stop staring at yourself — try Hide View which allows other to see you but you don’t have to be distracted by your own face.
  • To stop sitting, the answer is simple: Stand up. Specialized stand-up desks can be expensive but there are now simple desktop accessories that mimic one for way less cost. Whenever possible, take a meeting on the go, a “walk-n-talk” instead of a video conference. And, I’ve also seen trends where companies are encouraging staff to take meetings while on exercise bikes and treadmills.
  • To decrease the amount of stress it requires to read facial cues, turn cameras off to hide your distractions. (Also, presenters do not like seeing someone take a call while they are providing their insights), Make sure you’re on mute, and use emojis and other forms of visual tools to express your interest and reaction to what’s being said. Thumbs up!

The bright spots

As people adopted more chat and meeting technology over the past months, there was a surge of adoption in previously-ignored areas of physical and mental health technology. Take for example, our comfort level with tele-health and tele-therapy.

In the article, “Telehealth as a Bright Spot of the COVID-19 Pandemic” from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, academics found that in just a few few weeks after the pandemic hit, tele- health went from under 5 per cent of patient visits to almost 93 per cent. And as CBC previously reported, of these patients, 91 per cent said they were very satisfied with their experience.

The Telus Health App has an artificial intelligence ‘chatbot’ that assesses user’s symptoms. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

Tele-therapy has also increased substantially from two per cent of people using it to 85 per cent. I’ve seen many of the organizations I work with adding it to their benefits packages — products like BetterHelp and TalkSpace included as part of their wellness portfolio.

Also, in my interview with one start-up, I learned they’d built a new Slackbot tool named Freud. The chatbot allows people to anonymously ask questions about mental health while other employees (and Freud as well) will answer those questions or just provide support. These mental health chatbots are gaining in popularity with lots of development and funding in this area of mental health tech.

The adoption of these innovations are valuable because they provide increased accessibility and reduce stigma – two specific barriers that limit people in need from getting help. However, tele-therapy still has a long way to go because of its lack of affordability. The virtual therapy tools I mention earlier can range between $300-$500 per month to access.

Artificial Intelligence: new era of well-being

Perhaps the biggest leap for well-being technology can be found in the advancement in AI.

Some examples of companies leading the way include MetLife and Humana, who have deployed new applications for call centres.

The AI app Replika allows users to interact with a chatbot intent on learning all about them, eventually becoming able to mimic their tones. (Ramona Pringle)

One application “nudges” call centre agents through the display of in-the-moment cues. For example, a heart pops up when a customer’s emotional state changes, indicating a need for empathy. It guides agents during conversations to be more emotionally intelligent, which takes some of the cognitive burden off of them and helps better control conversations. It also helps them lead customers through challenging situations without taking on the emotional burden.

Affectiva is AI for ride-sharing staff. It analyzes drivers’ facial expressions for signs of burnout and sends messages to the driver on ways to lower their stress levels, thereby reducing road rage and accidents.

Mental health chatbots are gaining in popularity. Woebot, for example, uses natural language processing and sentiment analysis to interpret a user’s input and generate personalized responses. Then it leverages Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help users modify their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours for improved mental health.

For healthcare,  AI is a supertool to avoid burnout because it reduces physician workload and decreases what is called pajama hours: that time at home when they are trying to complete administrative duties. AI attempts to tackle the burden of electronic health records, a massive cause of burnout in healthcare.

As with any real cultural disruption, the pendulum swings really hard to one side but over time will return to right itself. I think this year, we had to experience everything so sharply it was overwhelming.

But I also believe once the pendulum rights itself again, we’ll see how the pandemic has brought the future of well-being into the present, and inevitably that’ll be a good thing.



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