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Social interactions

Why are social interactions so critical for mental health?

We live in a time where the world is turning to technology more and more. A cell phone in nearly every pocket, cars successfully running on electricity and TVs are considered as "smart".

The process of receiving and delivering education has also jumped onto the technology train. With thousands of options and ways to gain an education online, is it only a matter of time until online education becomes the only way to gain an education.

Right now, a big question is whether online education is the right answer for us as human beings?

Discussions can be made for both sides, but what it ultimately comes down to, is an individual’s preference in how they receive their education and their understanding of its impact upon their health.

We all learn in a variety of ways. Some of us prefer online courses; others prefer the classroom setting and some of us like to have a mixture of both. And there are pros and cons for all these different forms of learning, which means that there is no one correct way of teaching and learning. But in a world where nearly everything is now with a technological focus, and with the current circumstances of COVID, online learning may be, for the first time ever, the best way or even the only way to go ..

In this article I will take a stance for face to face or a blended learning system rather than a solely online education as I talk about some of the societal impacts and effect it has. This is just my opinion and you are very welcome to have yours … however, there were several significant factors that have played into my decision: mainly what l have seen from my own experience of being in a classroom during the past few months. But also, what l have heard or rather what l have not heard ….

The positives of an online education system

1) Individual pace of learning

The most significant, and possible the most important factor for online education is the ability to go at your own pace. It has been shown that many students across the world struggle with keeping up with their peers on a daily basis. Learning programs have been created to help these students, but ultimately these programs rarely exist in schools and colleges. Students are expected to keep pace daily with their teacher and other classmates. However, via an on-line format, students can go at their own pace and learn the best way they can. I am sure that we can all relate to this as a positive need. So, an online course allows us to access the information at our pace and with the option to go back and forth to review as many times as we need.

Another significant impact that online education has on society is the ability for online education to be adapted to students with different learning styles. In an article written by Sarah Morse, she talks about the opportunity that teachers have to adjust their teaching style to fit the needs of their students: She is quoted as saying … ‘If developed properly, online classes may increase efficiency and course productivity. To supplement lectures, teachers can provide access to tools that facilitate discussion and active participation. In an online environment, teachers can reach students with different learning styles more easily. For example, they could post a video lecture for those who learn best by listening, a diagram, photos or video for those who learn best by seeing and an interactive game for those who learn by doing.’

Additionally, by being able to adjust to different teaching styles, it also gives the opportunity to teachers to create personalised online-assessments for their students. No teacher ever wants their students to fall behind and not graduate. By being able to individually work with students and find out specifically what each student’s needs, it allows teachers to take that important step of helping all their students to succeed. One key thing to remember here is that these courses and programmes and ability to teach online does not happen overnight. It takes time to adjust and develop, it is a step-by-step process.

2) Environmental impact of Online Education

The second most significant factor of online education is the impact that it has on the environment, or rather the effects that it has been shown to have on the environment. The foundation of this factor rests on a study conducted by Dr. David Campbell and Dr. Elliot Campbell in 2009. The hypothesis that they were testing was whether online education would decrease the amount of CO2 emitted into the air.

To conduct their study, they gathered 100 students from a variety of backgrounds. These students took their classes in an in-class setting to discover how much CO2 emission could be prevented. All the classes that were taken, also had the option of being taken via an on-line setting.

The study also varied in the distances traveled and the amount of travel, how many times a week. Their goal was to get a general understanding and have it not be weighted towards one specific classification. The study lasted one term. At the end of the term they were able to come to a clear conclusion: based off the variety of travel distance and how often, it was concluded that each student would produce anywhere from 100-350 pounds of CO2 emission. That accumulates to a total of nearly 5-7 tons of CO2 being prevented from entering the atmosphere over the course of a single term for those 100 students. That’s the equivalent of approximately 12 people flying London to New York, economy class. So, to put this into context of importance … It is projected that there were about 56.4 million students attending elementary, middle, and high schools in 2020 across the United States alone. Now do the Maths!

Those are both compelling points for the positives of online learning, but we must also consider the negatives.

The negatives aspects of Online Education

One of the biggest impacts that online education has on society, is its social and therefore emotional impact.

When taking an online course, you can take it from the comfort of your own home. No need to get up early and get ready for school, you can simply complete the course on your own time and in your own setting. What this also entails however, is that you can literally just stay at home and never need to enter a classroom for your entire course or educational lifetime. You never need to come face-to-face with your teacher, or even your classmates. The social aspect of your education becomes zero. I think most of us can relate to this either from our own personal experiences or of those around us, especially during the past few months and the consequences of the pandemic and the need to work from home.

In an article published by Ryan Hickey he stated the obvious, that online education eliminates the ability to have those face-to-face interactions with a teacher. He then quotes an English Professor from the University of Virginia who said that online education creates more of a “monologue and not a real dialogue.” The inability to communicate one on one with your teacher on a daily basis takes away the opportunity to gain significant help on an assignment or task and therefore also the opportunity to build those relationships of trust and respect that you need with a professor or teacher. It is just not the same via a zoom meeting …

Another point that Hickey brings up is the necessity for self-discipline. He is quoted as saying “The problem is the time management and organisational skills necessary to stay on top of your work. Allocating an appropriate amount of time to complete each task and balance your coursework against other priorities in your life”. Therefore, if you struggle with procrastination (and many of us do), then online education will only increase the temptation to procrastinate. There are still deadlines in an online education course, but the difficulty and the need to prioritise and met those deadlines only increases as you need to rely on yourself and your own self-discipline, to not only remember, but to complete the assignments.

The final point that Hickey mentions is the requirement of self-direction. He brings up this point in-regards to meeting with an academic advisor or tutor. Most courses require that students meet with an advisor to set up their learning plan. Learning plans are designed to help students along the way in giving clear direction when receiving their education. Via an on-line format, a student must rely on themselves if they are receiving their entire course online. There is no opportunity to face to face meet with an advisor and get the help that you need, you must rely on yourself completely.

What having self-direction means is that the student must be self-confident that they are able to understand and find everything that they need to graduate. There’s no direct assistance and no help; the need for self-direction increases dramatically. This may not be a significant factor for every student but having the opportunity to meet with an academic advisor can only benefit a student along their path towards their educational goals.

Personally, I don’t need evidence to appreciate the value of making and maintaining social connections. I experience it daily during my classes and have really noticed the negative affects when those interactions are decreased.

So maybe the key question really should be ‘is working online really that bad for my mental health?’

While being online can be helpful for your mental health (access to resources, learning at your own pace, lack of peer pressure and more …) there might be times when using online tools could have a negative impact on your mental health. Such as ..

#Comparing yourself to others. Spending time in online communities and on social media sites can mean that you more frequently end up comparing yourself to others. This can negatively impact self-esteem and how you view your life. If you find this happening to you, you could try limiting the amount of time you spend on these sites. You could also try taking a longer break from any sites you find unhelpful.

#Feeling anxious or stressed. You might feel pressure to be constantly checking your social media accounts and taking part in online conversations, which can cause feelings of anxiety and stress. Comparing your life to others on social media can also mean you feel anxious and stressed.

#Difficulty sleeping. For some people, spending lots of time at night checking social media and other online sites disrupts their sleeping pattern. Some studies suggest to stop checking your phone by 10pm or earlier to give yourself time to unwind before going to bed and sleep.

#Feeling lonely. Some people find using online communities and social media a lonely experience as it doesn't give them the same feeling of connection as offline support. If you find you are feeling lonely while using these sites, you could try connecting with people offline. For example, you could join a face-to-face peer support group.

#Feeling overwhelmed. Being a friend to other people online can feel great but caring for someone who's going through a difficult time can also be very stressful and overwhelming and could inadvertently affect your own wellbeing.

A lack of social face to face interactions has been shown to damage our mental health. The emotional support provided by social connections helps to reduce the damaging effects of stress, whilst it can help us to foster “a sense of meaning and purpose in life,”.

With the astounding fact that teenagers today are spend an average of nine hours a day online, I have to wonder about the impact of online learning.  Whether it is done from home or in a classroom with other people. What truly will be the impact of the lack of social and emotional interactions for a generation who were already spending more and more time online and who are known to be struggling with developing real world connections. What can we expect for their futures and the world around them.

Online education is here to stay. But l hope that there will always be in-classroom and face-to-face settings offered at educational institutes. I appreciate that online education will continue to grow on a much larger-scale year on year. I hope that it isn’t expected that online education will completely replace the in-classroom setting but that we understand, expect these changes and evolve.

I look forward to the day we hear conversations and laughter in the rooms around us and not just via zoom …

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