Dr. Shana MacDonald talks social media and our quarantine life

Dr. Shana MacDonald, Communication Arts professor and SSHRC-funded intersectional feminist media researcher, gave a talk as part of the “COVID-19: Ask our Experts” lecture series, hosted by the University of Waterloo. The focus of MacDonald’s talk revolved around social media during the pandemic: how are people using social media to combat loneliness? how is news traveling? and how can we make the internet a more positive place for people?

We are currently living through the first pandemic to take place during the digital era. As most of our social and work lives have had to transition online, and information is now predominantly filtered through screens, we are facing what Dr. MacDonald refers to as an “infodemic”. It’s important to acknowledge the negative consequences of rapid information dissemination through social media. Dr. MacDonald explained,

“we’ve observed increased public anxiety and uncertainty, spread of misinformation about cures, even lies about the virus being fake, and increased racism and xenophobia”.

Some strategies are emerging to address the spread of misinformation – Dr. MacDonald cited examples of the WHO working with social media companies to fact-check information, such as Tik Tok supporting a COVID-19 channel. More than before, Tech companies are working with people to incorporate new features that respond to public desires. This is, according to MacDonald, a very positive outcome emerging from the new normal – people are figuring out what they want to get out of the internet, and we’re having more conversations to make those ideas happen. 

MacDonald and other digital media researchers are observing a massive trend that people are becoming more vulnerable on social media, openly talking about loneliness and other mental health concerns. This also comes out in the form of sharing strategies and coping mechanisms with one another, such as making sour dough bread (and this writer can personally attest to that example). However, MacDonald noted that as our Zoom social calendars fill up, this is causing a different kind of mental strain, causing people to confront the limits of their online socializing. 

Kids, like adults, are depending on social media more than ever. How do parents monitor screen time when school-age children have school online? MacDonald encouraged parents to take up strategies that emphasize family time, even when it involves a screen. “I don’t limit family movie nights or video games. To me, that’s not screen time because we’re doing it together,” says MacDonald,

“This is a hard time for kids, but I’m actually really hopeful for Gen Z. I believe that this next generation of people will grow up remembering social distancing, and will appreciate face-to-face socializing in a way we can’t imagine yet”.

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