Has the pandemic changed how we engage with media?

Matthew JohnsonThey say the future comes when you aren’t looking. This Media Literacy Week, we are reflecting on how the pandemic has changed how we interact with media and each other. Certainly a few years ago, not many of us could have imagined we’d be spending a fair portion of our lives doing video chats, which were considered obsolete and mostly reserved for keeping in touch with friends and family far away.

While we now talk about “Zoom fatigue” (and may suffer from “Zoom dysmorphia” as a result of staring at flattened images of ourselves for hours at a time), the need to distance ourselves from each other has also shown the importance of faces and voices in communication. Put another way, we’ve seen a dramatic demonstration of the importance of empathy. Facial expression and tone of voice, along with body language, are the main things that make us feel empathy for other people.  When we’re communicating online, we can’t see or hear these. This means we’re a lot more likely to misunderstand each other or to not notice when we’ve hurt someone’s feelings. As a result, when we’re online empathy has to become not just a reflex but a conscious practice.

While many adults moved to remote work during the pandemic, nearly all students spent at least some time learning from home as well. This has sped up some trends that were already happening and cast new light on other issues. Remote schooling made the question of when to give each child their own device irrelevant – every child needed their own device just to attend school – while showing how many gaps remain in digital access across the country.

Those new devices highlighted privacy concerns as well. Some of these were dramatic, such as students being suspended for playing with a Nerf gun during online school and being subjected to eye-tracking during online exams. But as worrying as those are, it is the subtler issues that will likely turn out to be more important, in particular student surveillance. As is so often the case, the impact is usually felt more heavily by marginalized youth. LGBTQ students, for example, may be forced to self-censor or be even put at risk by device or browser surveillance, while non-White students are more likely to encounter problems with proctoring software.

The way the pandemic reshaped our lives has changed our understanding of “screen time” as well. When students were spending their school days in front of screens, it became clear that counting hours and minutes was an ineffective way of addressing screen use.  If the educational and social values of school outweigh any harms done by delivering it digitally, then other screen uses – whether they are creative activities or the digital socialization that served as a lifeline for so many students under quarantine – can as well. We’re now shifting towards the more holistic way of looking at screen use that  focuses on mindful use and on steering youth toward more meaningful and positive uses of screen devices.

Mindful use of digital devices also means applying a critical eye to the content we see and engage with online – the importance of which has been underlined by the pandemic and accompanying “infodemic.” Today, disinformation doesn’t only come from publishers, gatekeepers and agenda-setters such as politicians. Social media networks, influencers and ordinary users play an important role not just in spreading false information but originating it as well.

As well as showing the real-world impacts of disinformation, the pandemic has shown how even a topic like public health can become politicized in a media environment that favours opinion over news reporting and partisanship over critical thinking. While learning to find and recognize reliable information is even more essential than ever, we also have to encourage humility – being willing to consider that you might be wrong, and to ask yourself why you’re inclined to believe or distrust a particular message.

In the end, that may be the biggest impact of the pandemic: the reminder that what we do as individuals makes a difference both to those around us and to society as a whole. Contrary to the loud voices of a small number of conspiracy theorists and COVID-19 denialists – and despite the ways that the “majority illusion” and the man-bites-dog ethos of news media make them seem more numerous than they really are – Canada has consistently had supermajority support for public health measures. We may come away from this period with a greater awareness of our obligations as digital citizens both to share good content and to respond to dangerous misinformation when we see it.

There can be no silver linings in something as painful and tragic as the COVID-19 pandemic. But difficult times can help us focus on the things that are most important to us. By bringing us more suddenly into a future that was already coming, the pandemic may give us the opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the technologies that have become an essential part of our lives.

Media Literacy Week takes place October 25-30, 2021. Visit www.medialiteracyweek.ca to find out more.