As we close out 2021, we continue to chart a course through the pandemic, with new variants emerging, new boosters a possibility, and pandemic fatigue a growing reality. Our digital and physical worlds have long since changed dramatically. But while our experience over the last two years and increased reliance on the internet have altered many aspects of life permanently, the expected return to in-person activities will most certainly affect our relationship with technology.
The internet has long been an important tool in family, school, and work life. We all witnessed it become vital in 2020 – to connect, entertain, and support us. We were able to still see our loved ones, and when schools and businesses closed to help keep families and communities safe, technology enabled us to maintain education and employment. We explored digital possibilities to a greater degree than ever before, attending school remotely and working from home, with the initial idea this would all be temporary. However, as the pandemic continued, we conformed to change and formed entirely new habits.
We face a readjustment in 2022 that will bring its own challenges, as well as great opportunity. It’s unlikely internet use will look exactly as it did before the pandemic. Increasing possibilities to connect in real life mean usage probably won’t continue in the same vein as it has over the last two years. With global vaccination rates rising and effective treatment options growing, we reach a point to pause and reflect on the lessons learned – to not be caught unprepared as we were in 2020, to take the best of digital and physical life, and to stay safe, connected, and engaged in all ways going forward.
Balancing the Digital Scales
There has been a tremendous surge in internet use in the form of video chats, video streaming, and online gaming since early 2020. In September of this year, a Pew Research survey highlighted that 90% of Americans say the internet has been essential or important to them, while statistics also show internet penetration in the United States is at approximately 91%. We adopted – willingly and not-so-willingly – new ways of using the internet for business, education, and social activities. There have been reports of video conference fatigue, and we may have run out of shows to stream with all the binge watching. Managing our own work while overseeing our children’s schoolwork caused stress for many. Yet, there were benefits to having these options when we really needed them, and they’ll remain viable and valuable ways of keeping us connected in the future. Of course, as we readapt to less screen time, there will be a reverse adjustment period.
What rituals will you keep that you came to enjoy? As rules regarding extra screen time may have evolved in the past year, keeping usage safe and positive was likely always a focus. How might rules evolve again? How will you achieve balance in your family?
Making the Most of Our Models
If you were fortunate enough to take your job home, you may have the option to keep it there. Or at least keep parts of it there, as fully remote and hybrid models emerge. Pew Research released a study in late 2020, showing approximately 20% of participants were working from home prior to the pandemic. This number had reportedly risen to 71%, and of those, 54% indicated they would like to continue from home. Various reports in 2021 also demonstrated how different groups were affected differently – mothers and fathers, the self-employed, and those with greater means and access to a quality connection. Our children have had vastly different experiences with their relationship to technology. While educational access was not entirely equitable prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 compounded certain challenges. In December 2020, the U.S. National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard tracked variations such as 56% of schools adopting a hybrid model, 29% offering in-person instruction, and 15% running remotely. The Department of Education explored the uneven effect on students with regard to basics, such as simply being able to log on, and this technology gap was still present in fall 2020. With expanded access to vaccinations, and 99 percent of schools having reopened, our experimentation with different educational models did and could still benefit some students.
A percentage of employees are back in the office, while many others have seen return dates come and go. If given the choice, would you work from home, return to the office, or embrace a hybrid model? How will we take the best of what we have learned from various school structures and help ensure all our students are positioned to succeed?
Keeping the Best of All That Changed
We have many reasons to be optimistic as we close out 2021 and look to the year ahead. Though we continue to be challenged by COVID-19, the endless experiences, lessons learned, and obstacles overcome in the past two years do provide hope, as we look to the horizon. Undeniably, while we’re waiting to put the pandemic fully behind us, we may find ourselves fatigued at the idea of yet another video meeting, or question whether our children’s screen time has outpaced all reason.
The end of another year makes for a good time to consider your family’s relationship with the internet and how or if it should change. How has the internet been important or essential to you? In what ways will it continue to be when the world fully reopens? Let’s be thoughtful about beneficial behaviors and realistic about those that aren’t. Get your kids’ views on their journey through this time and place. Prepare for the post-pandemic world, so the adjustment goes as smoothly as possible. Let’s make 2022 the best it can be, keeping the things that made life better and readying for a return to the joyful things that await.
Lynette Owens is Vice President of Global Consumer Education & Marketing at Trend Micro and Founder of the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 25+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.
Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens.