Finding the balance with time online and offline during COVID-19

Technology can be a great way for us to stay connected. We can see the importance of this now especially as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic. Be it Zoom meetings for work or school, FaceTime calls with friends and family, or access to information and news online, technology has become an even more necessary survival tool, allowing us to keep going during a difficult time. There is, however, a flip side. You are likely now well familiar with Zoom fatigue and know the feeling of exhausted eyes after a day of scrolling through TikTok or Instagram. So, while tech opens up the world for us, it is also important to be balanced and to take a break every once in a while.

In trying to find this balance, it might help to think about what may drive us to spend more time scrolling than we’d like. Some have argued that excessive social media usage is driven by the need for social acceptance, a need which initially evolved to increase our chances of survival. 1 This same need may now be driving us to seek the validation of our peers on social media. And, as noted in the recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, we are further reinforced by the unpredictability of such validation through likes and other features that tell us others are interacting with us.2 It has been theorized that human behavior is determined partly by a series of cost-benefit analyses, and when an act as quick and easy as checking social media has the potential to create an influx of positive emotions, some suggest that it is difficult not to perform it repeatedly.3

The newest installment in the world of popular social media in the United States, TikTok, is perhaps the best example of how components of a platform reel us in.  One of the biggest draws of TikTok, for content creators and consumers alike, is accessibility.4 When you open TikTok, the app provides you with an endless supply of videos based on your viewing habits. Like other technology algorithms such as Google, the more you watch and interact with posts, the more the app learns of your preferences and the better it tailors your feed to you.5 The videos are short, so opening or staying on the app may not seem like a huge time cost.4 But with an endless stream of entertainment at your fingertips, a quick TikTok break might turn into an afternoon. Additionally, users may be enticed by the seemingly low barrier of entry into becoming “TikTok famous.”5 TikTok’s algorithm of showing users posts by accounts that they are not following means that you don’t need to build up a large audience on the platform in order to go viral. One post is all it takes; and with countless trends, sounds, and hashtag challenges, the opportunities can seem endless. This means that people who crave an audience and the social standing that comes with it may become as engrossed with making TikTok content as they are with watching it.

While social media can serve as a valuable space to build and join communities and engage in creative expression 7 – especially for young people 6 – it is important to recognize when it may be a bit too much. Things to look out for include: your teenager or friend withdrawing from in person interaction more than usual; maybe they are no longer interested in other activities that used to enjoy.

Things that we can suggest to our kids – and also do ourselves – to reduce the pull that social media might have on us include disabling notifications (so we’re not getting alerted on an unpredictable schedule), and setting up a time limit on each app so that we are alerted when we have reached our daily maximum. And, there is always the option of deleting the app from our phones to make it more time consuming to access. Having screen-free zones (like the bedroom) and times (like dinner) also are nice ways for everyone to get a break. But for these strategies to have an impact, all family members – including the adults – need to adhere to them.

And it’s important for all of us to remain active in real life. Plan family activities and support your teens in doing extracurricular activities.

While we are all trying to figure out how to navigate this ever-evolving online world, especially during the time of COVID-19, it is especially important that we help our teenagers do so. Their brains are still developing, as are their social skills. Helping them develop healthy boundaries and habits now will help them for the rest of their lives.

1. Hedrick, Michael (2013, February 18). Social Media And The Rise Of The Internet Validation Culture. Thought Catalogue.

2. Griffiths, M.D., 2018. Adolescent social networking: how do social media operators facilitate habitual use? Education and Health, 36 (3), pp. 66-69.

3. Alter, Adam (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin.

4. Fixing Port. Why Is TikTok So Addictive? [Crazy Facts You Must Know]. 5. Herrman, John (2019, March 10). How TikTok Is Rewriting the World. The New York Times. 6. Iqbal, Mansoor (2020, April 24). TikTok Revenue and Usage Statistics (2020). Business of Apps. 7. Royal Society of Public Health (2018). #Status of Mind: Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.