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Quarantine that stress: Limit screen time during coronavirus outbreak, experts say

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On a typical weekday, Sonya Kerr logs out of her social media accounts by dinner time.

As a professional social media marketer and consultant, Kerr is required to be plugged in — a reality that affects both her physical and mental health. Clocking out at a specific time each day helps keep the “digital drain” at bay, Kerr said.

However, like many Canadians, Kerr is now practising social distancing in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The shift has meant she spends exponentially more time online, both to read the news about COVID-19 and to connect with friends and family.

READ MORE: How to practise social distancing during coronavirus outbreak

“I absolutely notice the effects of being plugged in more than usual: blurry eyes, head and neck aches and a general feeling of digital drain,” Kerr said.

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“It’s not very healthy or natural to be watching other people’s lives all the time.”

There is plenty of evidence to show that screen time is a “major factor” in mental and physical health, Simon Sherry, a registered psychologist at CRUX Psychology in Halifax, told Global News.

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One 2018 study found that “compulsive media use” triggered social media fatigue, ultimately leading to elevated anxiety and depression.

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“Increased screen time [can cause] anxiety, distractibility and loneliness,” Sherry said.

It can also promote a sedentary lifestyle and affect sleep, so it’s “not surprising” that screen time has negative mental and physical health impacts, he said.

READ MORE: How many Canadians have the new coronavirus? Total number of confirmed cases by region

When this is all compounded by fear and anxiety over COVID-19, Sherry said people experience a sort of “digital distortion.”

“The distortion being that people are being flooded with negative, threatening, panic-inducing information and that information is becoming over-represented in their mind,” Sherry said.

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“This is a problem of too much information.”

The good news: there are some things you can do to mitigate the effects.

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Curate your online experience

The number one way you can improve your mental health is to choose carefully the media you interact with on a day-to-day basis.

“There’s credible media coverage, but there’s also a different sort of less credible media coverage. Panic sells,” Sherry said.

“I think we need to be careful how much we expose people to … you don’t need to be updated about every cough or sneeze.”

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Sherry recommends limiting your exposure to a few credible sources of information, and only accessing those sources once per day.

“It’s difficult to think rationally and respond proportionately when you’re engrossed in panic-inducing social media,” Sherry said.

“You can end up talking ceaselessly about COVID-19, often with no constructive purpose. That type of behaviour … is going to maintain — if not exacerbate — fear, anxiety and panic.”

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Sherry admits it can be difficult to avoid social media, but says individuals can make the choice to “control their response” and “limit their exposure” to social media.

“Social media is leading to an overestimation of the actual danger,” he said.

“Clearly there’s a threat here, but that threat … becomes inflated. I think that social media is leading people to overestimate the dangers, exaggerate the threat and think catastrophically.”

Limit your screen time when possible

Sherry recommends accessing social media once per day during the coronavirus outbreak.

When it comes to whether you should limit your screen time, Maneet Bhatia, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto, agrees.

While the “fear of missing out” may not be a concern, he says there is an urge to stay connected.

Some Canadians may also have family members or friends who have a compromised immune system, and there may be an even bigger fear of not being able to stay connected with them.

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On top of this, the news is changing constantly, which could cause even more anxiety for some. Bhatia says this is the time to set some limitations with screen time.

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“Avoid overindulgence of news, articles, posts, especially if you are being overwhelmed,” he previously told Global News.

“There is a lot of misinformation and panic/fear, which only serves to heighten one’s own anxieties. If you feel others are sending too much info, you can choose to ask them to stop sending and/or disengage from the conversation.”

He adds that we have the right to our own boundaries and the right to process this crisis on our terms.

Other ways to care for your mental health

For many, the COVID-19 outbreak means fewer face-to-face connections and more time alone. For those who live with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, being asked to stay at home can cause further panic.

If you know someone stuck at home or self-isolating living with mental health issues, it is important to check in on them, Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, previously told Global News.

“We can also point people in our communities and our friends to existing resources that are out there,” she said, adding a mental health hotline is a good place to start.

READ MORE: What to know about the 1st confirmed Canadian 'community case' of COVID-19

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There are several things people who are feeling more anxiety during this time period can do, Bhatia said. For starters, we need to accept what being at home actually means.

“Accept that you cannot control everything and focus on that which is in your control,” he said.

“There is a lot of information available to us, so it is important to focus on the facts … rely on health and public officials and sources from credible outlets.”

Where to find help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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Coronavirus around the world: March 10, 2020

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from Arti Patel

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Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca