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The human touch is missing

The global pandemic has given new impetus to digitalisation. But what effect does the increasing use of technology actually have on us? How does it change the reality of life, especially among young people? Psychologist Dr Thorsten Kolling ventures a prognosis.

Boy and laptop
© iStock/damircudic

Virtual teaching is a useful option if children cannot go to school. But home schooling means that the human component is missing.

unizeit: Has the coronavirus crisis changed our attitude to digitalisation?

Thorsten Kolling: There is no empirical data available yet, but my impression is that the perception of opportunities and risks has sharpened, and the approach has become more differentiated. Many people are suddenly experiencing digitalisation directly, for example in a home office and in video conferences. Where previously the discussion was mercurial and affective, there can now be a more informed debate.

What are the risks posed by the new channels of communication?

We observe that media use is as diverse as the individuals themselves. The personality shines through more than usual during the crisis. For some, media use has decreased, they perhaps feel less pressure to participate in social groups, or they might reach for a book more often. Others consume media more excessively, play more computer games than average, or allow themselves to be influenced by fake news and conspiracy theories. This can become a vicious circle.

It is interesting to note that during video communication, there is a partial attention shift away from the conversation partner. In virtual conversation, we suddenly also observe our own image, and question ourselves and our statements to a greater extent. Here there are certainly parallels to problematic behaviour patterns that we also know from social media, e.g. negative self-perception, which can become dangerous for high-risk groups, such as people with eating disorders. Media competence currently plays a major role.

Your focus area is developmental psychology. What has changed as a result of the digitalisation of everyday life, especially for young people?

In their private communication, little has changed for young people. But the situation is different in the context of school and university. Here, the topic of feedback plays the greatest role. In a virtual teaching situation, there is less noticeable unrest, friction, conflict or situational comedy, in short: the human component is missing, the feelings. This illustrates how important relationships are, along with the possibility of attending to individual needs in a teaching situation. And the teachers also need feedback from the class or seminar.

It is about the totality of humans, things like smell and touch. Facial expressions and gestures can only be represented partially digitally, often asynchronously. In addition, we miss the common experience of a multi-sensory environment, for example sitting at a table with friends, chatting about the shared food, standing up and passing the butter. Technology can hardly compensate for this experience, even technologies such as holograms or 3D images are no substitute.

Will (digital) everyday life be different after corona?

We must not forget that the coronavirus is a global, chronic stress event, which requires us to develop coping strategies, similar to those we know from people who have been confronted with the diagnosis of a disease. Reactions such as frustration, stress or lack of motivation arise not only from the domestic isolation, but also from the uncertainty of the situation. Only after initial agitation, which we have also seen in politics due to the coronavirus, are we able to calm down.

Now we know what can be done. There will be conflicts, along the lines of "that even worked during corona". There will be those who reject home office work, because the situation was stressful with children at home, whereas others have enjoyed positive experiences. It is important that we do not come out of the situation with a high level of stress. It is nice if we argue more about the use of technology, not for the sake of technology, but for the benefit of people. The advantages and disadvantages should be considered carefully. Digitalised schools and universities are undeniably useful, routine activities are easy to implement, but technology should primarily be a support factor. The younger the target group, the more important face-to-face contact is. Teachers will also not become obsolete in the coming decades. The development of technology will surely accelerate even faster, I am specifically thinking about robotics or mobile telepresence, so-called "Skype on wheels", but the coronavirus has also shown us that human relationships are not replaceable.

This interview was conducted by Anna-Kristina Pries