picture provided by Livia

In an effort to salvage any semblance of connection and productivity in the last year, the proportion of our lives mediated by online technology has amplified noticeably. In February 2020, many of us had never heard of Zoom, and TikTok was still a small piece of the world of social media. But by now many of the technologies we use in our lives feel inescapable. As the world moved increasingly online, many students moved back home and felt “Zoom University” overtake their lives. But whether you moved back to a big city like Vancouver, or a small town like Grand Forks, or somewhere around the world, may have an interesting impact on how technology has crept over your psyche.

How the role of technology has changed in our lives across different communities is exactly what 3rd year UBCO Data Science student Livia Jonnatan has been investigating this year. After taking a Computer Science course with Dr. Khalad Hasan, Livia was given the opportunity to complete a research project as a part of the Rural Healthy Equity group, “a multidisciplinary group of researchers” based at UBCO who are investigating how British Columbia’s socioeconomic and political landscape causes disparity in the quality of health care offered in rural versus urban areas.

Livia noticed through her reading that rural areas often have worse access to technology, and wondered, given the overwhelming shift to online services during the pandemic, how people in rural or urban areas would differently respond to this shift? Rural people are less likely to own phones, and technology infrastructure is usually worse than in cities – so how might they respond to a world where technology is causing mental health problems, while also having poor access to online health services?

By surveying people across British Columbia, Livia discovered some striking results. Across the province, smartphone use increased noticeably, on average almost 2.5 hours more a day. But in cities, this increase was more than twice the increase of rural areas, an uptake of more than 3 hours a day more than before the pandemic. Livia found that “Smartphone usage helped rural people to stay connected and improved their productivity,” a result that was similar in urban areas. But of concern to both Livia and the healthcare sector was that people in urban areas experienced several side effects of their increased usage. “Smartphone addiction, continuous use, mental health effects, and physical health effects, like back pain and blurred vision” were widespread in urban populations, something Livia attributes to the much larger increase in use there.

But her findings also highlighted that smartphone use infiltrated a wide sweep of people’s lives. While phone use for things like maps and navigation decreased, maybe not surprisingly to many of us, there was a significant increase in phone use for a wide range of uses, including productivity, health, social media, and entertainment. 

While the range of phone uses likely contributed to the increase and the side effects of use, Livia also found some concerning results when she took a closer look at survey responses. Many rural users had never used their phone for health care at all before the pandemic, with several commenting they did not even know that was a possibility. She notes that this should be of concern to policy makers – consider in the midst of the chaos of the pandemic, trying to learn to use your phone for a brand new application. When this is the case for something as important as healthcare, it could be worrisome for many British Columbians. 

Given her findings, Livia feels there are a few things driving these differences. First, her urban survey respondents were noticeably younger, with many in their thirties, compared to many rural respondents over 50, and a much higher proportion of rural respondents were retired. But also, while a full three-quarters of urban respondents had shifted to working from home during the pandemic, half of rural respondents were still commuting to work. 

These differences, along with a well-documented lack of technological infrastructure in rural areas, could be driving differential outcomes. Livia found no difference in digital literacy between rural and urban areas, so she thinks the differences could be driven by poor infrastructure. Older, retired people may have the know-how to access health care, but finding a cheap, efficient, and effective way to do so in the midst of a pandemic could be daunting for many.

Given all her work, Livia has a few recommendations for the powers that be. First, while the shift to remote work has had a terrific effect on reducing COVID-19 transmission, people need to consider the side effects. Many respondents felt “overwhelmed and anxious” from regular COVID related new updates, and as face-to-face connection has waned, many find the chaos of online life unavoidable. Plus, “many researchers,” Livia notes, “are afraid that smartphone addiction will remain, even after the pandemic.” Considering all of that, she says policy makers need to consider how any health care issue affects rural and urban populations differently. In rural areas, many people have had to quit their jobs due to poor internet access, something that could have compounding effects on health and the health care system. 

Despite these concerns, Livia notes that the side-effects of technology, and the differential access to healthcare in rural and urban areas, are world-wide phenomena that researchers around the globe are working on. Now that her research is in review for publication, an impressive feat for any researcher, not to mention an undergraduate, Livia is setting her sights forward. After receiving an International Undergraduate Research award and working on an application to support children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Livia is looking forward to an Honours Thesis in Data Science, and what is sure to be an impressive career in research.