Online Fatigue – A Psychologist’s Inside Perspective During the Covid 19 Pandemic

Online Fatigue – A Psychologist’s Inside Perspective During the Covid 19 Pandemic

Sally Goddard Blythe


It is now more than 5 months since we first went into isolation. The restrictions have been gradually been released and from this month, my partner, who had to shield, is officially allowed out.

During these months I have learned a lot – how to bank and shop online, teach to all parts of the world, give webinar interviews and carry out client consultations via Zoom – but I have also learned this system of virtual communication, while wider ranging, is no substitute for engagement in real time and space.

My laptop has come to feel like my slave master.  It is energy sapping rather than energy giving and forces me to think and respond according its own programmes designed to fit a digital model; when working with large volumes of information which require frequent cross referencing it places an enormous strain on short term memory in a brain that is used to being able see or look up the complete picture in printed form.  Even my computer’s memory says that it is nearly full!

A daily flow of emails requiring answers to individual questions are a constant demand and distraction.  Whereas answers can often be provided in seconds during conversation, these must be listed, only to prompt further questions via several emails before a solution is found.  The inevitable delay involved in resolving simple questions places strain on working memory with “unfinished business” becoming a background theme to all current projects.   As with any form of baggage, the more you carry, the greater the strain on the system.

Distractions in the form of projects on hold, interruptions from reminders, social media and unwanted advertisements (not all can be switched off), siphon attention from the primary task in hand, reducing efficiency.  (It can take up to 15 minutes for the brain to recover the same state of focused attention following an interruption).  Competition for attention also interferes with the “reward” of having completed tasks, and of being able to consign information to long term memory.  Small wonder that many employers are beginning to report malaise amongst staff forced by the current situation to spend long hours working from home online.

Physically working in this way is sedentary with the visual system being forced to focus at one distance for long periods of time.  Although some of this can be ameliorated by taking regular breaks engaging in a different activity, sometimes the demands of work make this difficult to do.

My area of specialisation involves observing reactions in the body to various stimuli.  As any film or television studio technician will tell you, camera angle, lighting, focus and timing can all have a profound influence on what the observer actually sees.  Perspective matters.

Client consultations take twice as long for several reasons:  The connection is not always stable resulting in delay and unsynchronised communication. This makes giving instructions and observing physical tests online very difficult, adding to compliance issues when working with children.  It is not possible to engage with clients, instruct, observe and type up notes simultaneously, so all session notes have to be typed up following the consultation.  On the positive side, technology has enabled us to continue monitor clients’ progress online, update intervention and see them through a programme.  It has reduced travelling and time away from work to attend sessions for parents, but it is also increasingly clear that online sessions are at best, a substitute for in-person consultations.

In the past research on the effects of electronic media on children’s brains has raised concerns about attention, mood, self- regulation and social interaction.  Insidiously some of these factors may be beginning to affect adults, forced to spend more time engaged with their computer than with people.

Below is an extract from my book Raising Happy Healthy Children, written a number of years before the Covid 19 pandemic.

“While rapid shifts of attention are useful in primitive environments where danger could come from any source, they are not good for processing individual elements of a narrative or remembering detail, as many of us know if we have had too many interruptions when trying to complete a task at work. Frequent shifts in attention give an overall impression but do not improve recall.

Martin Large talking about use of electronic media in general says,

“TV viewing is highly addictive, a plug in drug[i]. People spend long hours watching, say they cannot switch off, the longer they watch they less they can turn it off, sacrifice many important social activities, and report withdrawal symptoms. Recently, researchers have found that TV is not just habit forming, but that dopamine, strongly connected with a number of addictions, is implicated. Dopamine rewards our brains for paying attention, especially to stimulating, fast paced images. So Aric Sigman[ii] concludes that, ‘We are being chemically rewarded for looking at a screen full of changing images and becoming neuro-chemically dependent.”

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter  involved in pleasure and reward systems in the brain, as well as the inhibition of involuntary movement when at rest. It is one of three neurotransmitters collectively known as monoamines, of which the other two are norepinepherine (noradrenaline) and seratonin.  Norephinepherine acts as a key chemical in mediating the physical changes involved in arousal and it is important in the regulation of hunger and alertness.  Seratonin is important in the regulation of sleep, particularly the onset of asleep.  Anti-depressant medications such as Prozac act by blocking the uptake of seratonin at the synapse increasing the availability of seratonin in the brain.  Certain carbohydrates particularly potatoes are converted into seratonin when eaten, a chemical connection which goes some way to explaining why depressed individuals tend to increase their consumption of carbohydrates. This may be the body’s natural attempt to restore the balance of the brain.

Dr Amen in his book “Healing ADD:  The Breakthrough Program That Allows you to See and heal the 6 Types of ADD”, says that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) are particularly susceptible to the addictive properties of electronic games.   A study published in the journal Nature carried out PET scans on subjects playing action video games.  They discovered that the basal ganglia, where dopamine is produced, were more active when playing the game than at rest.  Amen goes on to say that, “both cocaine and Ritalin (a stimulant drug used to treat the symptoms of ADHD) work in this part of the brain as well”.  One of the properties of Ritalin is to make more dopamine available to the brain.  “Video games bring pleasure and focus by increasing dopamine release.  The problem with them is that the more dopamine is released, the less neurotransmitter is available later to do schoolwork, homework, chores and so on[iv].  While the brainwave theory partly explains the dulling effect of electronic media on the brain, the neuro-chemical theory explains some of its addictive properties with the let down or withdrawal symptoms that follow.”[v]

While the developing brains of children were thought to be particularly susceptible to these influences, my personal experience over 6 months of lockdown has made me question whether adults given long term exposure also start to suffer from similar effects?

It is not all bad.  Technology has enabled many of us to continue to work through extraordinary circumstances; obtain necessities when unable to go out; maintain visual communication with family, friends and colleagues and to provide goods and services.  Other personal benefits of the lockdown have been finding beautiful new countryside on our doorstep, exercise, enjoyment of the simple things and living for the day, but as my primary mode of working continues to be online, I ask, am I the only one who is beginning  to feel computer weary?


[i]  Winn M, 1985.  The Plug-In Drug.  Viking. New York.

[ii] Sigman A, 2005.  Remotely controlled. Vermilion Press.

[iii] Olds J,  Milner P, 1954.  Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brains.  Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. 47:419-427.

[iv] Amen D, 2001.  Healing ADD:  The breakthrough program that allows you to see and heal the 6 types of ADD.  GP Putnam & Sons. New York.

[v] Goddard Blythe SA, 2018.  Raising happy healthy children.  Hawthorn Press.  Stroud.

Published: 27th August 2020
Category: Sally Goddard Blythe


Join Sally Goddard Blythe as one of the presenters at the FREE ONLINE Embodied Psychology Summit this July 22-26th. Join us to ignite the wisdom of your body to heal trauma, stress, and pain. Discover and learn with over 40 world renowned teachers and therapists to optimize intimacy, connection and well being.

Published: 13th July 2020
Category: Sally Goddard Blythe

Interview on physical foundations for life and learning

Link to one hour interview with Sally Goddard Blythe on physical foundations for life and learning.

Published: 9th July 2020
Category: Sally Goddard Blythe

Learning to live alongside Covid 19

Sally Goddard Blythe

It is now 11 weeks since my first entry describing the various stresses and fears we were experiencing as we attempted to adapt to self-isolation two weeks before the government lock-down was imposed.

As the weeks have gone by, I have found that amidst the restrictions to our normal way of life, there have also been benefits.  These include:

  • Time to enjoy being at home; time to cook, to nurture the garden, to sit in the garden and read more fiction than I have had time to indulge in for more than 30 years.
  • The kindness and company of neighbours (at a reasonable social distance) with whom we are normally far too busy or distracted to interact.
  • Concern for and appreciation of distant loved ones.
  • Discovering beautiful walks and countryside on our doorstep and the time to explore them.
  • How less money is needed to live well, if we live simply. Negligible petrol costs, parking and days out; no need for new clothes.
  • Less waste.
  • Less greed.
  • Less need to travel with subsequent benefits to the environment.
  • Clear skies and starlit nights with lower levels of pollution.
  • Learning with difficulty how to teach courses, participate in international meetings, carry out webinar interviews and client consultations online.
  • Hearing others talk (often without yet consciously recognising what it is) about technology fatigue. In other words, that although technology has enabled many of us to continue to work in different ways, a realisation that working solely through this medium is not the same as contact in physical time and space.  There is something more tiring about continuous online work as virtual communication drains energy and utilises brain resources in a different way.   In starting to acknowledge this effect, perhaps in the future there will be a renewed desire for more leisure time to be spent in social engagement and physical interaction with the environment and less time spent on smart phones, social media and electronic gaming.
  • Children straining at the leash to be able to go out and to play freely – to exercise the natural energy to grow, explore and develop as physical beings in a physical world.

This week I was asked whether I thought the potentially negative aspects of electronic media on children’ s development that I had written about in 2010 (What Babies and Children Really Need),  had worsened in the last 10 years, particularly in the light of many children as young as six now owning a smart ‘phone and parents using these devices as an alternative means of controlling children, to being “present” with their children.

I think the general trend was toward increased use.   I have witnessed toddlers learning to “swipe” before they learned to speak and reacting to objects that did not have a “touch screen” with bewilderment when swiping did not produce a reaction; parents and other adults so distracted by the interruptions of their own electronic devices that they were not “available” for their families.  Constant “noise” generated by devices that interfere not only with concentration on cognitive tasks but the ability to think and muse, so important for creative thinking and problem solving.  These devices intended to help us were at risk of starting to regulate our lives.  Many years ago, I said that technology should be “a tool for life, not a way of life”.

Only time will tell whether as restrictions are lifted, these discoveries are only a short-term gain from the Covid 19 crisis or whether it has goaded us into re-appraising how we live our lives in the future.


Published: 2nd June 2020
Category: Sally Goddard Blythe

Podcast Interview with the author in advance of publication. English/French translation

Published: 5th May 2020
Category: Sally Goddard Blythe

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