Q&A with Dr. Pamela Rutledge: How are people spending their time in social isolation?
May 22, 2020 - by Carly Maga
There is no bigger story in our lifetime than the coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing required to prevent its spread. It has countless implications for global politics, economics, and social practices. But it also has every day impacts on the way we live our lives in our (now much smaller) individual worlds – right down to what TV shows, movies, news programs, or other activities we’re choosing to fill our time. To find out more about where these choices are coming from, we spoke to media psychologist and professor at Fielding Graduate University, Dr. Pamela Rutledge.
ExpertFile: What’s driving our desire for certain pieces of entertainment or news during the pandemic?
Pamela Rutledge: Humans have an instinctive drive to survive, call it a biological imperative. There are some core motivations to achieving wellbeing. According to self-determination theory, these include agency, which is our ability to take action and not be passive victims, and competence, which is our belief in our ability to achieve the intended and desired impact of our actions. The third is social connection, the human need for love and belonging. A positive psychology perspective would add that these together create positive emotions, increased resilience and optimism and, ultimately, a more meaningful existence.
All of this argues that when isolated, people will use whatever means help them achieve these motivational goals. Technology has emerged as a meaningful way to achieve these goals and, for some, fill up time that would have been spent in some other way pre-social-distancing and shelter-at-home.
ExpertFile: What trends in our consumption habits have you witnessed emerging?
PR: Video game use has gone up and it makes sense given that games are not only a form of entertainment, but they also take skill and the outcomes improve with practice. Therefore, games offer a chance to reinforce one’s sense of agency and competence at a time when the pandemic has increased our sense of helplessness and vulnerability. Gaming is frequently social as well, which offsets the sense of social isolation that can come from curtailing face-to-face and public social activities. Games also offer a sense of escapism—many games are built around strong narratives that effectively transport the player into another world, alleviating the stress and anxiety associated with adapting to a COVID-19 environment.
Social media use is up for the same reason—they can be interactive, entertaining and increase the sense of social connection.
With movies and TV, which is also up, the biggest trends are throwbacks which allow us to escape to “better times” and dramas that help people process anxiety and reassure people that challenges can be overcome. The movie Contagion, for example, was one of the top streamed movies as it provides people a way to visualize what’s going on and get some reassurance that we will survive. The biggest difference here is the use of streaming versus theaters—we’ve seen a shift to companies releasing new content much earlier to streaming services, much to the chagrin of theater owners.
The other trend that is relatively new is the use of video calling, such as Zoom, not just for remote workers. From virtual cocktail hours to virtual cooking or yoga classes, people are using technology to replicate a range of social behaviors in creative ways.
ExpertFile: Are these entirely new trends or a more advanced increase in existing trends?
PR: None of these are new; they are used more to fill in the social gaps created from sheltering-in-place. But there are constraints. A big increase in the use of video conferencing for personal events has also led to “zoom fatigue” – the burden of visual connection without the ease that comes from face-to-face. Zoom meetings require planning and become obligations, sitting in front of a camera increases awareness of social presentation (i.e. Good hair day? No make-up? Sill in pajamas? Need to shave?) which can create low-level stressors. Zoom also is stationery, where visiting in person is mobile. You can move around while you talk with someone in person.
ExpertFile: Why are we drawn to these items of consumption in times of stress like this?
PR: Media can be an outlet for many things: entertainment to improve mood and decrease boredom; provide a powerful narrative to take us to other worlds and on new journeys; engage our brains creatively in tasks; and support the positive emotions that come from feeling a little more control or having physical manifestations of one’s agency (like baking).
We are also drawn to media for information. When we are under stress, we search for answers to reassure ourselves and feel safer. Information comes in many forms across the media: traditional news sources, social media and direct communication (video, email, text).
ExpertFile: How can what we consume now in news, TV, books, movies, podcasts. etc… affect us in the long-term?
PR: Media content is sufficiently varied, so there’s no easy answer to impact. Increased consumption of narratives can increase empathy, podcasts and articles can expand our perspectives, and TV programs and movies can make us laugh and cry—both dispel tension and shift body chemistry.
Long term, people will continue to seek out the tool that satisfies their goal in the most effective way possible. People will resume face-to-face in lieu of zooming when they can. However some of the behaviors may be additive. For example, instead of calling mom on Sundays, people may choose to Zoom because visual connection makes it more tactile and personal. Other behaviors may shift because technology is more efficient or cost-effective. For example, some meetings may stay virtual rather than require travel, especially when the goal is primarily information transfer.
ExpertFile: Is there a “better” way to spend our time during isolation? Are we better off picking up a new hobby, or playing a new video game?
PR: How someone fills the time during this period is not as important as how those activities make the person feel. People will have a tendency to use media entertainment in lieu of, say, painting the living room, because it is pleasurable and less effort and provides some escapism from an anxious situation. Many people, however, have taken up handcrafts, started baking and other “throwback” activities – including churning butter. These activities increase agency because there is material evidence of activity. However, doing too much of any one thing is likely to lead to boredom, whether it’s TV or butter churning.