A familiar scene for many: It’s the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and we’re missing social lunches and coffee dates. Connection is lacking and we’re confined to our homes for work, play, rest, and everything in between. In this reality, online tools like Zoom and social media skyrocketed as a resource for maintaining relationships and connecting with others—those nearby and around the globe. 

In 2021, 31% of adults in the United States said they were constantly online. An increase in daily internet usage meant more than half the population in the U.S. was either at risk of addiction or severely addicted to the internet, directly impacting mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. And internet users took notice. The New York Times recently reported that some major social media platforms are struggling, and the development of new platforms hints at alternative, more prosocial uses for technology. 

Is technology’s impact on our well-being one sided? “It really depends on how we’re using technology,” says Polina Beloborodova, a PhD candidate in social psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She’s one of a growing number of Mind & Life grantees seeking insights into how mindfulness-based interventions delivered online can strengthen our emotional well-being, build compassion and interconnection, and improve our physical health.

Psychologists have historically measured the effects of interventions through pre- and post- follow-up measures. But many in contemplative research are moving beyond the standard methodology to get a more detailed picture of how participants’ emotional well-being changes throughout an intervention. Polina’s research will track the trajectory of emotional well-being of participants throughout the duration of her study. Data collected daily with an online meditation tool will capture participants’ subjective experience closer to real-time than can be done with a retrospective assessment. And for a deeper understanding of how mindfulness improves emotional well-being, her project will look to additional data collected from participants’ smartphones to infer how socially connected they are in their daily lives: GPS data for mapping their location; gyroscope data for inferring their physical activity; and background noise, voice, and silence data analyzed to understand how much of their day is spent around others vs. in isolation. To more deeply understand participants’ experience of the online mindfulness training, qualitative data will also be collected in post-training interviews.

This combination of data collection approaches will try to capture a very real and detailed picture of the lives of the college students involved in the study, and will take us a step closer to understanding the mechanisms of how contemplative practices benefit our well-being. “I’m trying to follow Francisco Varela’s principles of using both first person and third person methods,” Polina adds. In the future, developments from this line of research could include creating interventions for college campuses triggered by patterns in student’s behavior inferred from their smartphone data, although this begs further discussion around privacy and other ethical considerations.

For Varela grantee Shin-Young Kim, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Rochester, the social isolation caused by COVID-19 is still very real in her home country of South Korea, where vaccination is not as widespread. “A lot of people on the Earth are still struggling with loneliness,” says Shin-Young, and she believes technology is vital for making mindfulness-based interventions more accessible. “I think the benefit of the internet is impossible to ignore—especially thinking of education in really rural or isolated regions of the world.”

By looking at the unique mechanisms underlying a brief lovingkindness meditation delivered daily to participants online, Shin-Young hopes to support the field’s understanding of the benefits of this lesser studied meditation and the development of future online interventions.

Like Polina, Shin-Young’s project will lean on daily data collected before, during, and after the intervention to get a clear picture of how a short online lovingkindness meditation affects participants’ sense of connection with their own bodies and their communities. Moving beyond a cross-sectional study, which follows up with participants at a single point in time, her research will provide a more complex analysis of participants’ emotional trajectory throughout the day and the intervention. “It’s like turning a snapshot into a video recording,” she explains, and the “videos” collected will also help reveal how this type of meditation affects participants’ interoceptive awareness and mind-body connection.

“Ethics and policy research should go hand-in-hand with technological development.”
—Polina Beloborodova

Both grantees feel the future of using technology for delivering mindfulness interventions holds many possibilities, alongside potential risks. “Ethics and policy research should go hand-in-hand with technological development,” says Polina.

Technology and our reliance on the internet isn’t going anywhere. But perhaps the benefits can outweigh the costs: “I think meditation apps [and technology] can be like a seed in people’s minds that can grow into a flower of curiosity,” says Shin-Young, “for meditation, connection with our bodies, and connectedness to other people.”

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