Who knew that almost a decade later, the events of Contagion would unfold in real life? While that may be a tad dramatic, since the end of 2019, COVID-19 has rapidly spread across the globe affecting almost 1.5 million individuals, as of the time this article was written. In these unprecedented times, self-isolation and social distancing have become the new norm and with that comes newfound challenges. For sleep-deprived graduate students, this may have initially sounded appealing—the prospect of having a day off to catch up on sleep and some necessary reading that has been piling up. However, as the days turned into weeks and finally into months, reality began to set in. As we tuned into the news each day, reports of increasing cases, cancelled flights, sky-rocketing unemployment numbers, and the burden placed on healthcare workers, definitely started to take a toll on our collective mental health. For many, this quarantine also has meant staying home, alone; separated from family, friends, and the community during this pandemic.
The isolation that this pandemic has brought into our daily lives has negatively impacted our well-being. More than ever, having the opportunity to connect with and support our loved ones has become significantly valuable. Social media has provided just that. Virtual platforms have made it possible for us to stay in touch whether it’s by sending a funny YouTube video, a meme on Instagram, messaging our friends on Facebook, or FaceTiming with family. Even Netflix has joined the social mediasphere with the roll-out of Netflix Party, which allows for virtual movie nights with friends and family. On the days when you may be craving some alone time, social media and streaming platforms serve as diverse sources of entertainment. This pandemic has shed light on the positive aspects of social media and its pivotal role in improving mental health through cultivating a sense of community, strengthening social networks, and providing accessible and light-hearted entertainment.
With the implementation of self-isolation, came the need for creative ways to continue being productive and maintaining a sense of normalcy. For students and professionals, this may translate into transferring physical meetings and classes onto a virtual platform. Enter, Zoom. While many had not even heard of this application prior to the pandemic, it’s safe to say that Zoom, along with other video conferencing platforms, has allowed us to keep a semblance of our daily routine and has quickly become essential. Granted, this transition was not without a learning curve—you might have seen the viral image of the boss who accidentally turned herself into a potato using Microsoft Team. Although not without fault, these social media platforms have helped students attend classes, write their final exams, and successfully defend their thesis online. Moreover, labs have been able to continue working on projects, preparing manuscripts, and maintaining collaborations remotely. On another note, thanks to Zoom group yoga classes, YouTube workout videos and Instagram live bootcamp sessions, we are able to keep moving and stay active. With home cooking also on the rise, these platforms give us the chance to try our hand at making those restaurant meals we love, or the latest viral recipes, which currently include Dalgona whipped coffee (bonus: you can also get in a decent arm workout if you manually whisk). From a mental health perspective, social media has given us the opportunity to come close to retaining a regular schedule in the midst of such chaos. Living in this digital era has granted us the unique privilege of working, exercising, and preparing our meals without leaving our front door, a concept that has fortunately eased the adjustment to the recent changes brought upon by this pandemic.
These are uncertain times. Fear and unpredictability usually go hand in hand, and as such, staying informed is crucial. Keeping up to date with the ever-changing COVID-19 situation can help foster a sense of control, and this is where social media has come into play. Public health professionals and healthcare workers have turned to online platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok, in order to inform the public regarding the pandemic and raise awareness on proper handwashing techniques and self-isolation tips. One such example is the multitude of interviews that prominent YouTubers and talk show hosts have conducted with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, in which he provides practical advice on preventing community spread while addressing the scientific reasoning behind these practices. It is important, however, to keep in mind that as the pandemic has spread, so has misinformation on social media: from reports suggesting the virus can be killed by drinking hot water or aiming a hair dryer up the nasal cavity. These fabrications are especially harmful during a crisis as tensions run high and the general public might grasp onto these “remedies” to quash their fear of the virus. This emphasizes the importance of getting our news from reputable evidence-based sources such as the Public Health Agency of Canada, World Health Organization as well as dedicated and knowledgeable scientists and clinicians who have been working tirelessly on the frontlines around the world.
It is hard not to see the irony in how social media has now become indispensable. Typically, when we think of social media, we are reminded of its contribution to the spread of misinformation, the decrease in productivity, and the reduction in face-to-face communication. Not to mention the negative consequences that social media has on our mental health. Although these drawbacks should not be neglected, in this article we hoped to focus on the positive influences that the social mediasphere has had during COVID-19. As life has come to a standstill, this pandemic continues to take a toll on our mental health and well-being. The social isolation and seclusion, upheaval of everyday life, as well as lack of accessible information can be daunting, but social media has afforded us the opportunity to interact with our loved ones, maintain a routine, and stay informed as a global community. The past few weeks in quarantine have truly highlighted the benefits of social media on our mental health and well-being, and in these challenging times, it is important to recognize the value of, and be thankful for this extraordinary tool at our fingertips and take advantage of it.
Edited by Emma Syron & Jeffrey Lynham