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How lockdown is making us see the online world in a new light

Working at home… with a cat

The coronavirus lockdown has had a considerable impact on us all. But one thing that almost certainly will have changed for the better, when all this is over, is our relationship with the online world.

Even 20 years ago, the quarantine experience would have looked quite different, without the many benefits technology brings. As classrooms, offices and entertainment find their new online place in our lives, families have been embracing all things digital.

According to a recent report into digital attitudes by Doteveryone, 81% of people think the internet has improved their lives – though fewer think it has been good for society as a whole.

Perhaps now is the time for a new conversation about the devices in our homes and to reassess their worth.

The remote office

Family life for many has been transformed by one or more parents now working from home. Conference calls and Zoom meetings have proved that distance working is an option for many businesses, where before there might have been resistance.

Suddenly, without the daily commute and the fixed nine-to-five routine, there is more flexibility and time for families to spend together. Parenting responsibilities can be shared, whether that’s joining in Joe’s Wicks’ morning workout, bedtime story-reading or helping with school work.

Released from the demands and distractions of the office, many employees are relishing the opportunity to manage their own time around a less structured day.

A recent survey reported that 46 per cent of Zoom users are only ‘top dressing’ – a sure sign of a relaxed approach to meetings.

And quite apart from employers reporting greater motivation and productivity in the workforce, employees themselves can experience improved health and well-being and stronger family relationships.

The virtual classroom

Of course, the biggest presence in many families’ lives is the virtual classroom, as school children continue with distance learning through a variety of online platforms. This has meant far more daily screen time and the opportunity to access the internet’s vast resources for learning.

This positive and constructive use of technology is, vitally, teaching young people digital resilience. Given this time to explore, they are learning how to navigate the online world and develop the ability to make positive decisions to guard against online risks.

Staying connected with family

Perhaps the greatest benefits have been felt in the power of the internet to connect us in our isolation. Young and old alike have depended on FaceTime, Hangouts, WhatsApp, Zoom and Houseparty to bring together family, friends and communities.

The Covid-19 Social Study run by University College London (UCL), which looks at the effects of the virus and social isolation measures, has been questioning up to 900,000 adults each week to understand the potential benefits of any activities they might be engaging in.

Three in four adults said they had been using phoning, video-calling or messaging to stay in touch for 30 minutes a day or more. And while phoning and videoing were, unsurprisingly, popular among adults under 30, they were also a firm favourite of the over 60s.

Many older people, who may not previously have had as much experience with tech as younger generations, have quickly adapted, embraced new ways of doing things, and moved online. To stay in touch with their families, they have had to skill up fast.

Families separated by lockdown – and those who in any case are separated by the miles – can now connect via their screens to involve grandparents in children’s lives, share virtual mealtimes, read stories or play board games.

Staying connected with the community

Communities are finding ways of connecting through online quizzes, bridge evenings, church services and virtual choirs. Facebook groups have been set up promoting local businesses, co-ordinating support for vulnerable or isolated individuals, organising pen pal letter-writing for care home residents, sharing news and generally bringing people together.

For those in vulnerable groups unable to leave the house, and those in remote rural areas, such activities are a lifeline – and one they may well want to hold onto once we return to normality.

Creative experiences online

A 2019 scientific study showed that singing in a virtual choir is good for mental health, boosting participants’ self-esteem and reducing feelings of social isolation in much the same way as singing in a traditional ‘live’ choir.

Dr Daisy Fancourt, associate professor and research fellow at UCL and the report’s author, says, “It was really exciting to conduct one of the first studies looking from a research perspective at how new technology affects our creative experiences.”

There are so many of these creative experiences we can now share in online. With music venues, theatres, cinemas, galleries and museums all closed to the public, other ways have been found for us to enter these worlds.

You can pay a virtual visit to New York’s MOMA, Florence’s Uffizi, Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, London’s Tate Britain or 500 other museums and galleries via Google’s arts and culture collection. View some of the world’s most famous artefacts close up and without the travel, queues or cost.

Similarly, many theatre, opera and ballet performances are now being streamed from the National Theatre, The Royal Opera House and The Met, among others. Musicians including Lewis Capaldi, Katy Perry and Laura Marling are all livestreaming shows.

The experience may not quite match that of a live performance, but it offers a rare glimpse into a world from which many are excluded by location and high ticket prices.

Private lives made public

There are other fresh insights, offered by the digital world, into the lives of musicians, actors and various famous names denied the conventional channels for sharing their art or performances.

Patrick Stewart’s daily Shakespearean sonnet on Youtube; Anthony Hopkins doing Drake’s Toosie Slide challenge on TikTok; Judi Dench in a novelty dog hat on Twitter; Coldplay’s Chris Martin doing an impromptu gig; and BBC sports commentator Andrew Cotter delivering breathless commentary on pet Labradors competing for a rubber bone and on Australia’s parading penguins.

All these are strange and rare glimpses into the private lives of the rich and famous which entertain and connect us in their messages of solidarity.

A world of opportunities

The internet has opened up a world of opportunities for us to not only glimpse other lives and spaces, but also to engage in online activities; to develop new skills and pursue fresh interests.

There are free courses and workshops in everything from yoga and meditation to Mandarin and sustainable fashion; code writing to screenwriting; face sculpting to tapestry.

You can, for example, do a six-week course with assignments, run by the world’s leading universities (MOOCs), or use YouTube, Zoom and Instagram Live to join pilates classes, reading groups and ceramics workshops.

Millions of users worldwide have signed up to courses on platforms such as FutureLearn and Coursera, with the latter’s Science of Well-Being course already attracting nearly 2.5 million people. The language learning app Duolingo saw the number of active users jump by 200 per cent in the first four days of the lockdown.

Courses in self-improvement and wellness are seeing a surge as people aim to fill their time constructively and look after their health. Creative activities are also an effective way of combating loneliness – as the virtual choir research showed.

Fancourt told Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this month that one in 10 of those surveyed were trying a digital arts activity which can distract from worries, give a sense of purpose and boost confidence.

Embroiderer Ekta Kaul offers tutorials on Instagram and notes that the collective activity has a soothing effect, while potter and product designer Joe Hartley says that developing an art or craft project is a way of “quantifying how time passes”.

The future

The positives that technology brings into the family home is becoming increasingly evident in lockdown. Its ability to connect, entertain and teach; its role as office, classroom and performance space is enhancing the lives of a generation of users.

Let us hope that positivity is something we can take with us into the future.

Images: Prostock_studio, agcreativelab both; Julia M Cameron/Pexels


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