How the relationships we have with plants contribute to human health in many ways

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Sarah EltonAuthor provided. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Plants are more than background foliage in our busy lives. Our relationship with plants supports human health and well-being in many ways.

During the height of the pandemic, people flocked to the park near my home. For those of us who live in neighbourhoods where there is access to greenspace, parks allowed us to lounge on the grass and in the shade of the trees, admire flowers, enjoy a walk in the fresh air, or even grow food in a community garden.

These moments offered a health boost and made visible just one of the ways that human health and well-being is supported by our relationships with plants. It’s part of what I call relational health — a term that speaks to the ways health is produced through relationships. From a relational health perspective, health is a constantly unfolding process that is produced by encounters between humans and various aspects of non-human nature.

Sometimes the encounters are not good — we only need to think of emerging infectious diseases to be reminded of this. But mostly, interactions between humans and non-human nature are positive, health-producing and sustaining. Our relationships with plants offer a good example.

Plant blindness

Euro-western culture largely ignores the many roles that plants play in society. It’s been called “plant blindness,” an “inability to see or notice plants in one’s environment.” Plants are not much more than background foliage in our busy lives — or worse, expendable.

At the local level, trees are killed as homeowners renovate and infrastructure expands. At the global level, we demonstrate an ignorance of the health-supporting role of plants when we accept, in the name of development, the destruction of forests for palm oil plantations or the paving of wetlands, where all sorts of plants flourish.

The lack of awareness of the role of plants in supporting human health is particularly striking if you consider that plants produce oxygen. We can’t breathe without them. They clean our water, they provide us with food and medicine, fibre for our clothes, material for our homes.

The roles of plants

Squash plants growing up the side of an urban building. Photo credit: Sarah Elton, Author provided.

Botanists and ecologists study the natural science of plants. As social scientists, my colleagues and I consider the various roles that plants play in our social and political worlds.

Plants can be considered to be social participants and players in society. So I look at the ways that plants support our health, not only in terms of the food they provide us or the oxygen and shade they offer, but the ways that our relationships with plants facilitate political decisions and actions that support health in the city.

That non-human nature is part of society is foreign to Euro-western thought. Ever since the Enlightenment, the dominant Euro-western worldview has seen the human as the supreme species, leaving the rest of the world as resources to exploit, as writer and philosopher Silvia Wynter explores in her work.

To view a plant as a participant requires a shift in worldview, for some. Indigenous ontologies have understood and valued the contributions of non-humans to world-making. People in other parts of the world, including on the Indian subcontinent, understand that humans are not the only actors on planet earth. Also, the knowledge that health is produced through relationships between humans and non-human nature has long been part of Indigenous ways of knowing. It’s only in Euro-western society that has ignored and tried to erase other worldviews.

Plants as social participants

Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood viewed from a condo rooftop garden, with the community garden in the foreground and new apartment buildings in the background. Photo credit: Sarah Elton, Author provided.

So what does it look like when plants are social participants? Plants are evidently not like us — they don’t act with intent. Rather, their agency as health actors emerges from relationships.

conducted fieldwork in the Regent Park neighbourhood of Toronto that is being redeveloped from a social housing community to a mixed-income area. The redevelopment has involved building on land where residents have grown food for decades. Locals did not want to lose their growing space, so they advocated for gardens in the new neighbourhood. They wanted continued access to homegrown vegetables, and the mental peace and exercise that gardening provided them. They didn’t want to lose their relationships with plants.

Very simply, the relationships between people and plants facilitated the advocacy, and residents were able to secure at least some space for gardens in the new design.

At first glance, it might look like humans did the advocacy. They are the ones who spoke up and asked that plants be included in the design. But if you recognize the agency of non-human nature, it shifts the analysis.

If you consider plants as participants in society, then the plants’ agency in the advocacy becomes visible. Their agency arises from the relationships they have with humans. When their needs are considered by humans in decision-making, they play a role. The plants partner with the people and their physical presence in gardens stakes a claim to the land. This shift in worldview opens up many possibilities in better understanding the role of non-human nature in contemporary society.

This scenario also sheds light on how health is produced through relationships between humans and non-human nature in the city. Health is not something that one possesses in one’s body, but rather for the gardeners who depend on the garden for food and well-being, health is produced in part by their relationships with the plants in their gardens.

To promote human health during this time of climate change and global pandemic requires scrutiny of the relationships we have with non-human nature in ways that may not be familiar to the Euro-western worldview.

The anti-vax movement is being radicalized by far-right political extremism

Written by Sibo Chen, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press. Originally published in The Conversation.

An anti-vaccination protester holds an upside down Canadian flag during a demonstration outside the venue of a Liberal Party election campaign event, in Newmarket, Ont.

Vaccine passports have become a major point of contention in the 2021 federal election.

Currently, more than 73 per cent of Canada’s population have received at least one dose of vaccine, and the country’s response to COVID-19 continues to be a top priority for voters. This is likely why current public health efforts have concentrated on expanding vaccine access and implementing communication strategies (like motivational interviewing) to increase vaccination rates.

But, as seen through recent anti-vax protests, especially those targeting schools and hospitals, there is a worrisome convergence of the anti-vaccine movement and far-right political extremism.

And on the frontline of these anti-vax protests are people occupied by extreme rage who are threatening to exert violence against whoever they deem as “outsiders” and “traitors.”

For decades, vaccine hesitancy has been a subject of intense study in the field of scientific communication. The issue’s recent radicalization makes insights about its root causes even more important.

Factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy

A distinction must be drawn between vaccine hesitancy and the current anti-vax movement, as the latter’s agenda has been hijacked by far-right groups.

Previous study has identified a variety of factors contributing to people’s vaccination hesitancy, such as community traumascientific scepticism and political beliefs. Some Indigenous communities’ concerns about COVID-19 vaccines, for instance, come from instances of medical experimentation.

Meanwhile, errors made during pro-vaccine communications may raise additional concerns about vaccination safety and efficacy. Consider the public uncertainty and outrage over the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s contradictory messages regarding AstraZeneca.

Research on vaccine hesitancy around the world has demonstrated that a number of contributing factors to vaccine hesitation are directly linked to a persistent decline in public trust in institutions and government policy. In recent years, this trend, along with escalating political polarization, has shaped the anti-vaccine movement into its current form.

The frontline of these anti-vax protests are often people occupied by extreme rage. Photo Credit: Darryl Dyck/ THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prior to the pandemic, researchers noted that social media platforms, like Facebook, facilitate anti-vaccine messages and conspiracy theories by enabling the diffusion of misinformation like “pesticides caused clinical symptoms of polio.” Fast forwarding to 2020, major anti-vaccine groups on Facebook launched anti-vaccine misinformation campaigns weeks before the U.S. government launched its vaccine development program, sewing seeds of doubt and subsequently hampering the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines across the country.

The radicalization of the anti-vaccine movement

Since the start of mass COVID-19 vaccinations in early 2020, the public health sector has been closely monitoring an unusually high level of resistance among a small section of the population. Unlike prior vaccination hesitancy, the current anti-vax movement cannot be explained by a lack of information or illogical thinking, especially in light of the significant press coverage and public health initiatives over the last several months.

Scholars have resorted to the solution aversion model to account for the growing political division around vaccination. According to this model, individuals with divergent political ideologies perceive social issues differently because of their inherent aversion to specific solutions. In the case of vaccine passports, its implementation depends on stringent government regulations, which are deeply unpopular among many far-right individuals.

Additionally, our fragmented media environment further fosters solution aversion by promoting motivated reasoning. With today’s media audiences being trapped in algorithm-based digital echo chambers, it is increasingly typical for individuals to interact exclusively with like-minded media sources and other internet users, resulting in biased information absorption.

An ambulance passes through a crowd of people protesting COVID-19 vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations for healthcare workers, in Vancouver in September. The protest began outside Vancouver General Hospital. Photo Credit: Darryl Dyck/ THE CANADIAN PRESS

Fixing the broken public sphere

Admittedly, reconciling the divided public opinions on COVID-19 vaccination policies is not a simple task. As long as social media platforms continue to not bat an eye at misinformation out of concern for their click-through rates, and governments continue to ignore structural injustices driving political radicalization, it is unlikely that vaccine resistance will be reduced without increasing polarization.

The anti-vax movement, like many other issues that have emerged during the pandemic, serves as a stark reminder that our society’s public sphere is fundamentally broken. The long yet essential process of fixing it will require all of us, as responsible citizens and media users, to work collaboratively on restoring public conversation mechanisms.

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka put the focus on the importance of mental performance for Olympic athletes

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull. Originally published in The Conversation.

Simone Biles’ sponsors, including Athleta and Visa, are lauding her decision to put her mental health first and withdraw from the gymnastics team competition during the Olympics. It’s the latest example of sponsors praising athletes who are increasingly open about mental health issues.

The Tokyo Olympics will go down in history for many reasons. It was the first Olympics to be postponed, the first to be held in the midst of a pandemic and the first to be held without spectators.

But these Olympics will also be remembered for another first — the public airing of mental health challenges by two of the world’s biggest sports superstars, gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka.

The Tokyo Olympics are not the first Games to face unique challenges.

Midway through the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the athletes’ village was taken over by terrorists, resulting in 11 Israeli athletes being killed. Remarkably, after suspending the Games for only 24 hours, athletes returned to competition.

At the 1994 Atlanta Olympics, a pipe bomb was detonated at the Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring 111 others.

And much like the Tokyo Olympics, the 1920 Antwerp Games were held on the heels of the influenza pandemic.

When athletes rise to the occasion under difficult conditions, we say they are mentally tough — and we applaud them. But if they should fail to deliver an expected performance, we assume they have choked.

And yet, as we’ve seen with Biles and Osaka — two athletes who are the best in the world in their respective sports — none of us watching the Olympics can ever truly know what other additional or personal problems an athlete may be facing.

Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who was favoured to win in Tokyo, was eliminated after losing in straight sets to the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova. Osaka has been open about her mental health struggles. Photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig.

It’s easy for athletes to perceive a greater burden to perform, to struggle with distinguishing their identity from their performances and, for a favoured athlete like Biles or Osaka, to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders.

In fact, few athletes can return to the Olympic Games and win again after winning in the previous Games.

In 1993, researchers interviewed world champion athletes and found that success resulted in greater demands for athletes, compromising future high-level performances unless they were able to control both the expectations they placed on themselves and the expectations of external demands like media, sponsors and public appearances.

One of the many things that makes the Tokyo Olympics a unique Games is the absence of crowds. For some athletes, the presence of a crowd can help them get into an optimal performance state.

When I was competing for Canada in the high jump, I drew a lot of energy off the crowd — and consequently had better performances in a packed stadium. But if there were few fans in the stands, I had to really work on my mental game to perform well.

Other athletes, however, prefer the absence of a crowd because they can improve focus and keep their arousal level under control.

Mental health and mental performance

The demands on athletes at these Games have sparked a lot of discussions about mental health, but not so much about mental performance.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” The mental health continuum can span from being mentally healthy, to daily mental distresses, to mental health problems or mental illnesses.

We all experience daily mental distresses like failing at our jobs, pressures from school work or having a disagreement with someone close to us. When faced with these challenges, we are generally able to cope and adjust, and eventually return ourselves to a state of good mental health.

Mental health problem are moments in life when we are faced with substantial challenges that are difficult to manage — the loss of a loved one, a sexual assault or a divorce. These can be prolonged, but they are not a mental disorder. A mental illness is a clinically diagnosed mental disorder like depression or bipolar disorder, resulting in distress or problems with functioning.

Mental performance is concerned with the psychology of sport performance, whereby optimal performance and the well-being of athletes are addressed using mental skills training.

Dealing with the terminal illness of his coach, Pete Sampras fights back tears at the 1995 Australian Open.

Sport psychology is integral

The ultimate goal of mental skills training is self-regulation, meaning athletes understand the conditions that they perform at their best, the conditions where they don’t and how they are able to adapt and adjust themselves to be in a state for optimal performance.

Research has shown that when an individual’s self-esteem is threatened and they experience emotional distress, self-regulation and coping efforts can fail.

Mental skills training helps athletes effectively cope and return to a state of mental health quickly when they’re in mental distress. Athletes proficient in self-regulation can adapt and adjust themselves mentally when they are not in their desired mental state to still deliver a great performance.

Many athletes and coaches will work with a registered mental performance consultant to develop these mental skills. But only over the last two decades, as sport began to really embrace mental training as an integral component in an integrated support team, has this practice become popular.

The problem with mental performance is that it is intangible. It’s easy to see physical improvements, like with strength training, but it’s much more difficult to see improvements in confidence or mental resilience.

While most athletes and coaches do acknowledge sport psychology as critical to performance, it often receives the least amount of attention in training. Mental skills have been found to be a defining factor that distinguishes successful Olympians from less successful Olympians.

Starting a conversation

When athletes perform under pressure and deliver incredible performances, they are lauded as being mentally tough. However, if they struggle or choke under pressure, they may be called mentally weak.

While we tend to be more accepting of someone battling mental health issues, we are less accepting of athletes battling mental performance issues. Both should be accepted and supported, as the Tokyo Games are illustrating.

Biles and Osaka have demonstrated to the world that only the athlete ever truly knows what is going on and only they are capable of making decisions that serves their best interests. Biles and Osaka have also assisted in encouraging discussions of mental health and mental performance.

While mental performance and mental health are not necessarily mutually exclusive, struggling with a mental performance does not automatically mean an athlete is having a mental health problem. It also doesn’t mean an athlete is mentally weak.

But one takeaway from these Olympics should be the importance of sport psychology. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, the father of self-actualization, estimated less than one per cent of the adult population would ever realize their full potential.

As we explore the human potential in sport, it’s time to realize that mental training is just as important as physical training to achieve incredible performances.

Big Pharma’s COVID-19 reputation boost may not last — here’s why

Written by Sibo Chen, Ryerson University. Photo credit [Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS. Originally published in The Conversation.

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in Canada sits ready for use at The Michener Institute in Toronto in mid-December 2020, less than a year from when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

The race for developing effective COVID-19 vaccines has put the pharmaceutical industry in the spotlight.

Over the past few months, the world has witnessed rapid clinical trials and approvals of several highly effective vaccines like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. This unprecedented achievement has been made possible by close intra-industry, state industry and international collaborations.

Big Pharma’s proactive approach to vaccine development has also brought an unexpected consequence: its reputation has been notably enhanced since early 2020. A survey conducted in February 2021 found that almost two-thirds of Americans now give the pharmaceutical industry high marks.

But reputation risks loom even as pharma companies are being celebrated as pandemic heroes.

The controversy over the AstraZeneca vaccine’s potential serious side-effects is a prime example. The English company has experienced a public backlash due to a lack of a crisis response plan and conflicting messages delivered by different stakeholders.

The global headquarters of AstraZeneca in London. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo

Will the reputation boost enable the pharmaceutical industry to fundamentally rebuild its negative public image? As someone who researches public relations, I believe that only by prioritizing socially responsible practices can Big Pharma achieve true reputation redemption.

Big Pharma’s damaged reputation

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry had been battling reputational damage for years. Notably, it sank to the bottom of Gallup’s August 2019 United States industry favourability poll, with a total positive score of only 27 per cent. According to Gallup’s analysis, high drug costs, massive advertising and lobbying spending and the opioid crisis have all tarnished the industry’s public image.

This is consistent with public relations research conducted in Europe. In a qualitative analysis published by Public Relations Inquiry, a team of Ghent University researchers analyzed how Belgian pharma companies responded to the pervasive “Bad Pharma” public image.

Their analysis revealed that Bad Pharma perceptions reflected larger societal issues, including widening income and health gaps. The public expects the pharmaceutical industry to save and improve lives by developing innovative, affordable and effective medicines. Accordingly, the industry loses trust when the public believes its actions and motives are at odds with those expectations. Such a decline in public trust can’t be easily fixed by corporate responsibility reports or public relations campaigns.

The pharmaceutical industry’s reputational challenges also correlate to how the media covers it. A 2020 analysis of Big Pharma-related coverage found that the majority of stories were neutral and involved reporting on topics like finances, stocks, profits, mergers, acquisitions and restructuring. Coverage is more negative when it delves, less often, into more sentimental topics.

In other words, the media mostly reports on Big Pharma from a business perspective instead of from a social and public health perspective. This lack of media attention to the industry’s social responsibilities contributes to growing public distrust of it in recent years.

A man holds a sign in Vancouver in 2017 during a march on the first National Day of Action to draw attention to the opioid overdose epidemic. Darryl Dyck/ THE CANADIAN PRESS

Risks underlie vaccine-led reputation boost

Considering the above factors, it’s unsurprising that the pharmaceutical industry’s all-hands-on-deck efforts on COVID-19 vaccines, in combination with extensive media coverage, has resulted in a substantial improvement in public sentiment. According to a survey conducted by think tank Data for Progress in March 2021, 56 per cent of respondents had a favourable view of pharmaceutical companies, double the rating of Gallup’s 2019 poll.

Nonetheless, a closer look at the data reveals two caveats.

First, drug costs remain the top concern for the public. The Data for Progress survey suggests that 72 per cent of American voters support policy measures that would lower the cost of prescription drugs. The pharma industry, meantime, insists that the discounted prices it’s currently offering for COVID-19 vaccines will not last very long.

Vaccine prices to rise?

In February, Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio said in a call with Wall Street analysts that after the pandemic, Pfizer is “going to get more on price” and hinted there would be a substantial price increase for its COVID-19 vaccine.

Pfizer Canada executives hold a news conference in Montréal in 2012. Graham Hughes/ THE CANADIAN PRESS

The company currently charges US$19.50 per dose for its vaccine, but the typical price is $150 to $175 per dose for other vaccines it sells. If implemented, this aggressive pricing policy would undoubtedly result in public criticism, especially from developing countries that have already been neglected during the first round of global vaccine allocation.

Second, the remarkable speed of research and innovation achieved during COVID-19 vaccine development is mainly due to intensive government funding support and concerted collaborations across multiple sectors. It’s uncertain whether these special measures herald the arrival of a new model in which governments have better regulation over Big Pharma issues like patent control, advertising, clinical data transparency and spending on lobbying.

If the pharmaceutical industry wants to achieve the ultimate image makeover, it must capitalize on the current goodwill by prioritizing socially responsible practices. That begins with fairer drug pricing and a genuine commitment to resolving public health disparities.

Public health officials are failing to communicate effectively about AstraZeneca

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

People line up at a mass vaccination centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont.

It’s a frightening and perplexing time for Canadians who have either been vaccinated against COVID-19 or are trying to determine what vaccine to get.

On May 3, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) updated its COVID-19 vaccine statement and recommended that Canadians less likely to contract COVID-19 may want to wait for a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine instead of AstraZeneca (AZ).

Days later, Ontario said it would not administer AZ as a first dose due to the risk of rare blood clots.

Although the NACI update did not contradict its earlier guidance when it recommended expanding the use of the AZ vaccine to all Canadians over the age of 30, people were understandably left with the impression that viral vector vaccines — including AZ and Janssen/Johnson & Johnson — are less safe and effective than their mRNA counterparts. Combined with Ontario’s move, that impression will undoubtedly intensify.

NACI’s advice of “waiting for preferred vaccines if you can” provoked an immediate backlash both in the virtual House of Commons and on social media.

When questioned by Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative health critic, on whether Health Canada still recommends “taking the first vaccine you’re offered,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu dodged the question by suggesting that “people should consult their health-care professional to decide which vaccine is right for them.”

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu is seen after receiving her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Thunder Bay, Ont., on April 23. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Jackson.

On social media, other health experts expressed their frustration that NACI’s message may fuel vaccine hesitancy, while some recipients of AZ were startled to learn, after being advised weeks earlier to get the vaccine, that it’s second-rate or possibly dangerous.

David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical of health, has also faced a social media backlash.

There’s no doubt NACI, Health Canada and now Ontario’s top public health official have run into a serious communication problem.

Let’s delve into crisis management and communication theories to elaborate on what’s gone wrong in NACI’s vaccine messaging, and what lessons can be learned to improve future communications.

Communicating uncertainty

How messages are framed has a significant impact on the public. For instance, it has been found that media discourses emphasizing the connection between COVID-19 and China, and deeming the pandemic a threat caused by foreigners, have been a major contributor to the notable increase in racist and xenophobic attitudes during the pandemic.

News can be conveyed via a variety of communication strategies, and story-telling is arguably the most powerful one. British media scholar Philip Seargeant argues in his analysis of the rise of conspiracy theories and post-truth politics that stories framing “corrupt states controlled by ruthless elites” fuel the prevailing anti-establishment sentiments found in both right-wing populist movements and disinformation online.

People wait after being vaccinated at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette.

A vivid story can easily capture public attention away from abstract charts and figures because it plays on our emotions.

What initially triggered recent public anxiety and confusion about COVID-19 vaccinations was NACI’s statement that “it continues to preferentially recommend authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines due to the excellent protection they provide and the absence of safety signals of concern.” The word preferentially inevitably provoked readers to think a comparison to other vaccines was being made.

Making a bad situation worse

Then on May 4, NACI’s chair, Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, appeared on CTV’s Power Play in an apparent attempt to clarify confusion and ease public anger. Yet the hypothetical story she presented further worsened the situation.

When explaining why NACI advocated for an “informed consent” regarding which vaccine to take, Quach-Thanh commented:

“If, for instance, my sister was to get the AstraZeneca vaccine and die of a thrombosis when I know that it could have been prevented and that she’s not in a high-risk area, I’m not sure I could live with it.”

Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh appears on CTV News.

As soon as a hypothetical story of this nature lodges in people’s minds, scientific information about the extreme rarity of vaccine-induced blood clots becomes less relevant for people wondering whether they should opt for AstraZeneca. Getting the vaccine, after all, has been framed as a “risk-taking” behaviour by a top public health official.

There are two additional problems in advocating that people should make their own risk assessments. First, people tend to under-estimate the risk of contracting COVID-19, especially in the absence of relevant knowledge.

With so many uncertainties associated with the community spread of COVID-19, it’s inherently difficult for the general public to figure out whether the infection risk in the areas they live is high enough to warrant an immediate AZ shot.

Second, an individual cost-benefit analysis encourages a personal calculation: If I feel comfortable that I have a low risk of contracting COVID-19, then I can wait for my preferred vaccine. This contradicts early vaccine communication efforts in which getting vaccinated was portrayed as an act of responsibility that could protect family members, neighbours, front-line workers and colleagues.

A unique crisis

None of this is meant to discredit NACI’s critical contributions to public health. The COVID-19 pandemic has surpassed all previous public health crises in terms of its scope, duration and severity, creating enormous challenges to public health communicators on a daily basis.

The ongoing situation also defies the conventional wisdom about crisis communication in many ways. Traditionally, crisis management and communications instruction involves training students to handle tasks arising from a potential crisis and to prepare for it, and to provide daily updates both during the crisis and in its aftermath.

When conflicting messages appear in news media, the spokespeople for organizations often adopt strategic ambiguity to grapple with uncertainty while maintaining a public image of transparency and openness.

This playbook has been rewritten by the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic’s abrupt, evolving and global nature has transformed it into what’s known as a syndemic in which unexpected communication crises can be triggered by even a single word — in this case, “preferentially.”

Meanwhile, with almost all public conversations taking place online, it’s almost impossible for a public institution to single-handedly control the mainstream narrative. Any ambiguity can lead to outright misinformation.

Ultimately, the NACI and other COVID-19 messaging controversies highlight the importance of closely co-ordinating communication among different stakeholders. That will ensure any possible conflicting messages can be negotiated and presented in a far less confusing and damaging manner to the public.

#FoodPorn: People are more attracted to social media content showcasing fatty foods

Written by , Saint Mary’s University; , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

We’re more attracted to foods with a higher caloric density, and this is reflected in our social media activity.The Conversation

Life outside our living rooms has been in short supply since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s no surprise that people have increasingly turned to producing and consuming social media posts that focus on food. With limited access to our favourite restaurants, cafés or fast-food joints, social media has become a safe way for people to get their culinary fix.

But what is it about videos of food that engages users and generates the most likes, comments and shares?

Our recent investigation, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, focused on the nutritional makeup of dishes depicted on social media. We examined the recipes and ingredients for hundreds of Facebook videos from Buzzfeed’s Tasty profile and found that caloric density can positively influence social media engagement.

Interestingly, not all nutrients are created equal when it comes to engagement. Rather, the ones that people can readily see, like saturated fats, may be more responsible.

Eating with your eyes

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered our relationship with food: what we’re eating, where we’re eating, why we’re eating the way we are and even when we’re eating.

Not surprisingly, people are also spending more time on social media since the start of the pandemic. Taken together, the pervasive use of social media has also changed how people are exposed to food.

With more than 400 million posts tagged #food and 250 million tagged #foodporn on Instagram at the time of this article’s publication, social media users are inundated with visual displays of food.

Perhaps most notably, Buzzfeed’s Tasty has become the world’s largest digital culinary network, amassing more than 100 million followers on Facebook and over a billion monthly views.

Given the ubiquity of food media online, understanding the specific characteristics that shape engagement is of critical importance to several groups: content producers looking to tailor media towards viewer preferences; advertisers seeking to increase marketing impact; and health advocates interested in helping consumers make better eating choices.

Nutrition and social media engagement

Humans are hard-wired to seek foods with characteristics that the brain instinctively recognizes as valuable. Seeing calorie-dense foods like those high in fat content (like burgers, pizza and cookies) typically precedes pleasurable consumption, so it is natural that humans visually attend to food.

Finding and eating calorie-dense foods typically makes people feel good, releasing dopamine and stimulating pleasure centres of the brain. This suggests that nutritional content can be broadly gauged by a dish’s appearance and that the simple exposure to calorie-dense meals can make people feel good.

We’re hard-wired to find calorie-dense foods more attractive. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

When it comes to influencing online behaviours, the link between feeling good and digital engagement is well documented. Positive content is more likely to go viral and social media content that makes consumers feel good increases the likelihood of being liked, commented upon and shared. Taken together, visual exposure to food media that looks calorie-dense — as opposed to calorie-light — should drive social media engagement.

More fat = more engagement?

Our research examined the recipes and ingredients for hundreds of Facebook videos from Buzzfeed’s Tasty using a text-processing algorithm. We found that caloric density can positively influence social media engagement. Several follow-up experiments suggest that positive affect, the extent to which we feel good after visual exposure to calorie-dense foods, helps explain the connection.

Interestingly, it seems that not all nutrients are created equal when it comes to engagement. Rather, the ones that people can readily see, like saturated fats, may be more responsible.

Saturated fats are prevalent in butter, cheese, meats and oils, and are known to give foods their juicy, chewy and creamy sensory experiences.

Our findings align with a particular approach to food photography, where adding an artificial sheen with WD-40 can make food look more plump, moist and juicy.

These findings raise an interesting question: Is it possible to make healthier foods, like vegetables, more appealing by applying visual characteristics associated with fattier foods by, for example, coating them with a sheen?

Identifying these visual characteristics of nutrients can better inform strategies to increase engagement with more health-conscious food media content.

Social media engagement habits can be leveraged to promote healthy eating. Photo credit: Anna Pelzer/Unsplash, CC BY.

Importance of amplification

But why does social media engagement even matter?

Social media platforms use rank-ordering algorithms to prioritize and boost content that receives more engagement. Simply posting content online does not mean it will be viewed. Rather, it is engagement with content that amplifies reach and serves content to a wider audience. If content featuring unhealthy or calorie-dense foods is more likely to receive engagement, it is also more likely to reach more people.

Overall, our research offers some initial insight into how the nutritional composition of food media influences social media engagement. As consumers’ preoccupation with digital food media continues to grow, especially during pandemic lockdowns, understanding the factors that increase engagement with this content is crucial, with public health implications.

Not only does nutrition influence what people eat, but this research suggests that it may also shape social dynamics in terms of what people share with others, ultimately influencing and normalizing what others eat.

Next time you like, comment on, or share a food video on social media, consider what it is about the food you find so appealing.

Suicide prevention during COVID-19: The healing power of connection and mutual support

Written by , University of Toronto; , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Pixabay/Canva. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

There are many complex pandemic-related risk factors for suicide, and suicide prevention is a crucial public health response to COVID-19.

The mental health crisis is a parallel pandemic of COVID-19 across the globe. There are increased concerns about pandemic-related risks of suicide in Canada and elsewhere. Studies from different countries present a complex picture with varying suicide trends, but increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation were found to be consistent across countries.

Data from previous pandemics show a significant positive association between pandemic and suicide. The Toronto Transit Commission reported a nearly one-third increase of suicide attempts or fatalities during the first eight months of the pandemic. Suicide prevention is a critical public health response to COVID-19.

There are many complex pandemic-related risk factors for suicide:

A recent study shows that people in quarantine are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Vulnerable populations

Front-line health-care providers are also at increased risks of mental health distress. Furthermore, usual adaptive and coping resources may be decreased — less social support from friends and family, limited or no access to primary care, community support, health-care services and social recreational activities.

People with pre-existing mental illness are more likely to experience deteriorated physical and mental health. Photo credit: Unsplash/Tim Mossholder.

The impact of diminished coping resources is particularly critical to vulnerable populations experiencing pre-existing social, economic and health inequities. Elderly people are cut off from supportive programs and in-home services, and those in long-term care homes have had family visits restricted.

People with pre-existing mental illness are more likely to experience deteriorated physical and mental health. Some children and youth are beset by the uncertainty of learning modes and disruption of social connections; many report experiencing difficulty focusing on online learning.

For Indigenous, Black and racialized communities, pre-existing social inequities are translated into disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases related to increased risk of workplace exposure, inadequate housing and reliance on public transportation. For immigrants and refugees, disruption of community support and limited access to linguistically appropriate services are worsened during the pandemic.

A recent study showed people in quarantine are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts. Photo credit: Unsplash/Tim Mossholder.

These increased stressors and decreased coping resources may interact to escalate the risk of self-harm and suicide.

The following vignettes are anonymized composites of cases based on real clinical presentations. They provide a human story behind the complex issues at hand:

Ms. Smith

Ms. Smith is a veteran intensive-care nurse. She presented to the emergency department with worsening depression and suicidal thoughts, with an unsuccessful overdose attempt after a recent breakup. She feels that her partner did not show understanding when she came home from her shift exhausted, and they had frequent fights. She suspects that her partner is abandoning her to avoid the risk of infection.

Every day, work is like a war zone, always short-staffed, and the manager seems heartless. She is resentful that many colleagues are taking sick time, and that the system learned nothing from the first wave. She cannot take care of patients like she used to due to isolation precautions and work demands, and she is feeling numb facing so much illness and death.

While she gives reassurances to anxious families and dying patients, she feels like a fraud and a failure, ashamed of her own helplessness and hopelessness. She blames herself for not having more positive thoughts and not doing more meditation, and has begun to use alcohol to fall asleep at night.

Ms. Chan

Ms. Chan is a 75-year-old widow living alone with multiple medical illnesses. She does not speak English. All her regular community activities and medical appointments have been shut down and she has been feeling terrified because of her high-risk COVID-19 category.

At the beginning of the pandemic, most people were not wearing masks and gave her dirty looks for wearing one. She was anxious about people disregarding elevator capacity at her apartment, sometimes seeming to crowd around her deliberately. Once, while lining up at the grocery store, the person behind her yelled at her to go back to her home country. She was so shocked that she left her cart there and headed straight home.

She began to feel useless and hopeless. Her daughter started dropping off food for her at the door weekly. She tried to get her daughter to come in to listen to her fears, but her daughter angrily told her that she could not take any more stress and stormed off. Ms. Chan asks if she can get medically assisted suicide to end her meaningless suffering.

Proactive outreach

These brief composite cases illustrate the complex contextual determinants of suicide risk. People become vulnerable when multiple internal and external factors conspire to overwhelm their capacity to cope. There is a need to proactively reach out to those who are isolated, disadvantaged and marginalized, as well as to front-line health-care workers at high risk of burnout.

Suicide prevention is possible through increased public awareness of the warning signs, responsive mental health care and access to comprehensive interventions that address the complex psychosocial and structural determinants.

Increased stressors and decreased coping resources intensify depression, anxiety, obsessions and psychotic symptoms, which may interact to increase the risk of self-harm and suicide. Photo credit: Unsplash/Tim Mossholder.

In response, our PROTECH (Pandemic Rapid-response Optimization To Enhance Community resilience and Health) team has applied our resilience-building Acceptance and Commitment to Empowerment model to address pandemic stress and sense of hopelessness associated with suicide. The PACER online intervention integrates Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and social justice-based Group Empowerment Psychoeducation, comprising six self-guided reflective online modules with live video group conferencing.

Participants are encouraged to acknowledge and make room for their distressing thoughts and feelings without believing in them, while finding renewed value and meaning in their life. The group sessions facilitate social connection and mutual support. The social justice perspective supports participants to make sense of their suffering in a larger social context, enabling them to engage in “self-care” and “we-care” actions that promote personal and collective resilience.

Since June 2020, we have implemented 12 cohorts of PACER (Pandemic Acceptance and Commitment to Empowerment Response) training with two priority populations: front-line health-care providers and the Chinese/Asian Canadians who experienced COVID-19 related racism. Our preliminary results showed significant reduction in distress and increased resilience.

We have used the train-the-trainer approach and mentored 20 PACER graduates to become co-facilitators. We will continue to start new PACER cohorts biweekly over the next six months with a goal of delivering 30 additional cohorts.

The global pandemic has had a devastating impact on us all. To combat catastrophic demoralization, it is critical to proactively support people to reconnect with their values, meaning of life, one other and the larger world. Our spirit to survive and thrive collectively is bigger than the virus.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you need to know you’re not alone. If your life or someone else’s is in danger, call 911 for emergency services. For support, call Canada Suicide Prevention Service (CSPS) at 1-833-456-4566. Visit Crisis Services Canada for more resources.

Mapping Ryerson’s COVID-19 research


Explore our interactive map to discover how researchers from across the university have reacted to the pandemic.

Ryerson researchers have been at the forefront of responding to the global health crisis of COVID-19, whether it’s pivoting ongoing research or undertaking entirely new projects. From examining social impacts and the effects on our mental health, to advancing policy, to tracking the virus and developing new technologies, our researchers are meeting the many challenges presented by the pandemic.

Hover over the flashing dots in the map below to begin, click through to read the articles.

Touch the flashing dots in the map below to begin.

Indigenous Health Health-Care Strategies Social Impact Diagnosis and Treatment Public Health Policy Technology Mental Health Infrastructure Work and Economy Indigenous Health Indigenous Health Investigating impacts on Indigenous health Colonialism of the Curve: Indigenous Communities & Bad Covid Data COVID-19, the Numbered Treaties & the Politics of Life COVID-19 & Indigenous Communities: Information and Resources Close X Health-Care Strategies Health-Care Strategies Evolving health-care strategies in a pandemic Researchers to develop simulation to manage COVID-19 nurse workload Connecting with care: Supporting social well-being in long-term care homes during pandemics and beyond The NIA’s ‘Iron Ring’ Guidance for Protecting Older Canadians in Long-Term Care and Congregate Living Settings Close X Social Impact Social Impact Examining issues affecting communities From SARS to COVID-19: Putting the spotlight on anti-Asian racism Immigrants and migrants face uneven impacts from COVID-19: report Male Identity, Sexuality, Masks and Veils Zoom-bombings disrupt online events with racist and misogynist attacks A Culture of Exploitation: “Reconciliation” and the Institutions of Canadian Art Close X Public Health Public Health Tracking and containing the virus How sewage science can be used to fight COVID-19 and future pandemics Ryerson’s Social Media Lab partners with WHO on new initiative to examine COVID-19 fact-checking efforts from around the world Examining emergent school food models during and after COVID-19 Communication and COVID-19 New Expert-Developed Tool Helps Individuals Assess Their Risks Associated with Visiting with Others During COVID-19 Pandemic Close X Diagnosis and Treatment Diagnosis and Treatment Tackling COVID-19 from the lab The “Covidascope” uses machine learning to assess COVID-19 patients remotely How a Ryerson-led team is developing an ultra-sensitive testing technology for COVID-19 and beyond Biomedical Zone graduate uses AI to meet challenges like COVID-19 Grant will fund Ryerson researchers’ efforts to develop COVID-19 immunity test Close X Policy Policy Adapting policies for pandemics The Race to Trace - Security and Privacy of COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps COVID-19 Research Taskforce Preparing for food security after COVID-19: Strengthening equity and resiliency in future emergency response in Toronto Pandemic Borders: Examining the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic Researcher and students partner with the City of Toronto to offer insight into COVID-19 PPE supply insecurity Close X Technology Technology Leveraging innovative technology and equipment Taking PPE production from 4 hours to 35 seconds Fashion partners with industry and hospitals to battle mask shortage How Ryerson students are designing drones to fly COVID-19 supplies to remote communities Close X Work and Economy Work and Economy Assessing impacts on the economy and work Journalism professor April Lindgren researches impact of COVID-19 pandemic on local news sector The impact of COVID-19 on the FinTech industry Motor vehicle sales during COVID-19 in Canada Telework during COVID-19 lockdown in Canada Close X Mental Health Mental Health Studying mental health effects of the pandemic Kids will need recess more than ever when returning to school post-coronavirus Dr. Kristine Newman’s research leads to a new video resource for young caregivers What do nurses need to survive the emotional impacts of COVID-19? Close X Infrastructure Infrastructure Exploring the resilience of our cities The coronavirus pandemic requires us to understand food’s murky supply chains Pandemic preparedness is a multi-disciplinary challenge Mapping Toronto’s Digital Divide Feeding the City: Pandemic and Beyond Close X

To view the complete lists of Mapping Ryerson's COVID-19 Research, visit the OVPRI webpage.


Distance learning: How to avoid falling into ‘techno traps’

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

There’s strong pressure to use more technology to capture student attention, but what about inviting students to adopt a contemplative posture?

As another virtual university semester unfolds — the second or even third for some since the beginning of the pandemic — fatigue and declining satisfaction with this remote format seem to be increasingly felt on both sides of the screen.

On the one hand, there are students worried about the quality of the courses they are taking, but above all, they are missing out on campus and community life. On the other hand, there are teachers feeling breathlessly short of resources, who have been pushed overnight to change their practices and run their classes from home.

Beyond the purely pedagogical impacts, the issue of mental health for everyone is of concern today. Having personally had to give online courses to more than 250 undergraduate students over these past weeks, I have been able to experience these issues and to feel the limits of this new way of teaching.

Students and professors are feeling fatigued with screens. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Web influencer or academic expert?

The temptation — but also often the pressure — to draw out a host of technological tools to capture and maintain the attention of students or facilitate their collaboration is often very strong. Certainly, the idea of teaching a class live on Twitch or in a fictional world on Minecraft and then continuing the discussion on Discord or Slack can be exciting. But in this particular context, the teacher is sometimes more of a online influencer than an academic expert.

These technological choices also confront teachers with limits, both logistical and human. What can we say to the many students who access this content from their cell phones and therefore from their cellular data, or to those who do not yet have a computer and a high-performance internet connection?

What to do with students who have to share their workspace with the rest of the family, who don’t have a good grasp of these different tools or who have to learn how to use a range of different applications for each of their courses?

These issues also illustrate the very real risk of creating new barriers to inclusion in education.

So, before mobilizing such hardware, it is important to consider not only the ability of students to grasp it, but also the ability of teachers to train themselves sufficiently to offer a positive learning experience. More importantly, this is also an opportunity to learn about other modes of distance education and finally to move away from a vision requiring more and more tools and overstimulation.

A more human approach

What if one of the answers to the challenges of distance learning is to go back to basics and set up contexts that are less “techno” and more human?

In their work on the experience economy, consultants Joseph Pine and Jim Gilmore explore how value can be created based on the experience of “guests” (whether as consumers in shops or visitors to museums). They propose four categories for experience: educational, entertainment, escapist and esthetic. “Esthetic” experiences, they argue, are those in which participants are invited to adopt a contemplative posture. The experience then aims at harmony of the senses and attaining a kind of individual fullness.

An example of that could be a visit to a museum, where people walk around, sit on a bench and get lost in their thoughts. It contrasts sharply with an entertainment experience such as a music show or an amusement park. It’s a celebration of slowness, of a more subtle but equally engaging non-technological stimulation.

This kind of call for a slower, more informal pedagogical approach isn’t new. Moreover, the idea of lowering the pace, or to prune the content a little to facilitate retention without affecting the quality, was slowly gaining ground long before the pandemic.

Offering podcast courses or transmitting evaluations via audio not only gives you a break, but also gives you more flexibility as to when and where to view this content. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Create an atmosphere conducive to reflection

So, instead of using yet another collaborative tool during a Zoom course, why not simply create an atmosphere conducive to reflection through a warm decor, a little nature, something to watch or music that is pleasant to listen to?

Similarly, why not open the virtual rooms earlier, or close them later, for those who want to exchange in a more informal setting. Why not send the content in advance so as to take advantage of these so-called “synchronous moments” to interact and inject some human warmth?

Finally, it is possible to enhance non-visual stimuli to allow students to take a break from their screens for even a brief moment. The simple act of recording podcast episodes or transmitting assessments via audio not only gives students a break for their eyes but also offers more flexibility in when and where they can view the content. The opportunity has also come to rediscover the charms of a simple telephone conversation, instead of another videoconference.

Since this virtual mode of teaching is expected to continue at least until next fall or winter and to play a greater role in university curricula after the pandemic, it is not too late to imagine modes of engagement that are more mindful of individual constraints.

According to Pine and Gilmore, any good experience must be thought of in the broader context in which it takes place. So, rather than relying on the equivalent of an online lecture, let’s reconsider. Keep in mind the constraints of the moment and imagine courses that allow you to vary the contexts in which you immerse yourself, whether it’s by the fire or even under the comforter!

What pro sports should learn from resilient women athletes post-pandemic

Written by Katie Lebel, Ryerson University; Ann Pegoraro, University of Guelph; Dunja Antunovic, University of Minnesota; Nancy Lough, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Nicole M. LaVoi, University of Minnesota. Photo credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Players for the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces square off during basketball’s WNBA semi-final in September 2020 in Bradenton, Fla.

Elite women’s sports are predicted to generate US$1 billion in revenue in 2021.

With just a fraction of the investment dollars and comparatively paltry marketing and promotional budgets compared to those allocated to men’s sports, this is conceivably a conservative estimate. As sport emerges from the challenges imposed by COVID-19, women’s sports are becoming a lucrative business opportunity.

Don’t believe us? You’re not alone.

Despite record-setting momentum, the sports industry has continued to ignore the economic viability of women’s sports.

Many decisions are still based on outdated assumptions. Marketing has largely positioned women’s sport as the “right thing to do” as opposed to an exciting investment opportunity, and fans are treated as monolithic. The resulting narrative has left the women’s sport market both under-served and undervalued.

Sports fans, however, are telling a different story.

A Nielsen study found that 84 per cent of general sports enthusiasts of all genders are interested in women’s sport. If more women’s sports were available to watch, 46 per cent of fans indicated they’d tune in.

Giving fans what they want

What happens when you give sports fans what they want? The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup drew 1.12 billion viewers. Viewership for the WNBA this season was up 68 per cent; media coverage of their championship finals increased 15 per cent.

National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) viewership swelled 493 per cent for their 2020 Challenge Cup and 500 per cent year over year, LPGA viewership increased 21 per cent and this year’s U.S. Open tennis final between Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka averaged 2.1 million viewers on ESPN.

Japan’s Naomi Osaka holds up the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the women’s singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships in September 2020. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig.

Keep in mind this was during a time when many sports were competing simultaneously and ratings for the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL all declined significantly. What’s more, women athletes have also been at the forefront of advocacy for social and political change.

The bottom line? Women are doing more with less.

They’re finding innovative solutions during these most challenging times. They’re seizing the moment and exceeding expectations. They’re putting on a master class in resilience — because for the past several decades, that’s how they’ve been conditioned to do business.

The changing sport landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented disruption. While the sports sector adapts to these new and uncertain conditions, resilience as a coping mechanism is serving women’s sports well.

Through this lens, the distinguishing qualities of persistence, adaptability and agility are assets that women in sport have been fine-tuning for years. As the world of sport continues to mount its recovery efforts and the sports landscape evolves, we argue this innately gives women a leg up in the new normal.

Social Engagement Rates Across Professional Sports. Photo credit: Winsights x Zoomph.

And make no mistake. The sports landscape is in the midst of a revolution.

Gen Z has rapidly become the most influential generational cohort, commanding US$3.2 trillion in purchasing power. This demographic has high expectations around diversity and inclusion and they are following sports in very different ways than their predecessors.

With a preference for highlights on Instagram, they’re more likely to follow an athlete than a team, and the role of sport in their social life has redefined their fandom.

Layered on top of this, we know that women now control a third of the world’s wealth, adding US$5 trillion to the wealth pool globally every year. While traditional sport properties are struggling, women’s sports have the flexibility to be nimble and adapt to the new, increasingly diverse sport environment.

Women is sports ads are perceived as 148% more empowering than sports ads with men.
Something to cheer about: breaking gender norms. Photo credit: Twitter Marketing 2020.

We’re already seeing early evidence of this, with a 468 per cent increase in tweet volume around representation and equality. Advertising featuring women in sport is perceived as 148 per cent more empowering than similar ads with men.

Twitter has also found sports ads featuring women held viewers’ attention for an average of 6.5 seconds and drove 4.8 times higher ad recall than a control group. When women were featured in non-traditional gender roles, recall was 6.3 times higher.

If we consider merchandise as a proxy for demand, a whole new series of supporting metrics emerge. Nike’s 2019 U.S. Women’s National Team home jersey became the No. 1 selling soccer jersey ever, men’s or women’s. The WNBA’s now-famed orange hoodie has nine million impressions on social media, 238,000 engagements and US$250,000 in social media value. According to the online retailer Fanatics, the orange hoodie was the best-selling item across its website in August.

Pandemic disruptions

We’re currently witnessing a continuous series of disruptions exposing the widening gaps in society accelerated by the pandemic.

In sport, these disruptions have exposed the weaknesses of the traditional sports model. As we look towards the future of sport, COVID-19 may well be the catalyst for change that women’s sports have been waiting for.

Women in sport understand that success is not easy, convenient or comfortable because it never has been. They’re accustomed to coming up with constructive solutions that showcase persistence.

As the sports market reemerges in a post-pandemic world, women’s sports may be strategically positioned to not only better adapt to the rapid changes brought about by COVID-19 — they may be better prepared to lead the way forward in the development of a new model for sport. The future may be unwritten, but the time to invest in it is now.

Kids will need recess more than ever when returning to school post-coronavirus

Written by Lauren McNamara, Ryerson University & Pasi Sahlberg, UNSW. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for us to rethink and redesign how schools support children’s social connections and opportunities for informal play and recreation.

School leaders globally are tasked with the unenviable challenge of planning for school reopenings after COVID-19 pandemic shut downs. Having experienced their own isolation, anxiety, exhaustion and challenges of taking schools online, they are now challenged to redesign their schools to mitigate the effects of a pandemic.

Amid concerns about social distancing, it would be easy for education authorities to consider recess as a low priority, and perhaps even easier to cancel it.

Please don’t. In anticipation that recess might be sidelined by the pandemic, we are among a newly formed group of researchers, pediatricians and school leaders concerned about recess. We are leveraging three decades of evidence related to children’s developmental needs to highlight, in a global statement, why recess should be prioritized.

Yes, prioritize recess

Recess is typically the only unstructured time in the school day that provides a setting for children’s physical, social and emotional development — all of which are foundational for mental well-being, school engagement and learning.

But when children return to school, we must ensure recess is meaningful, playful and inclusive. Why is recess so important, and why now?

After months of physical and social isolation, stress and uncertainty, students are going to need a supportive, safe and inclusive place to connect with each other — far more than they need the opportunity to catch up with schoolwork.

From the students’ perspective, recess is a social space; it is less about a break from class or accumulating their necessary daily physical activity.

Children wash their hands at the Saint-Tronc Castelroc primary school in Marseille, France, May 14, 2020. Photo credit AP Photo/Daniel Cole.

Friendships, belonging

What matters to students, first and foremost, is friendships, social connections and feelings of acceptance and belonging. And this happens through play, recreation and leisure activities — at every age.

Recess is the best time in the school day when students can connect with peers and engage in meaningful, self-directed, recreational play.

And for many children, especially those who live in high-poverty urban neighbourhoods, recess may be may be their only chance for outdoor, self-directed play in their entire day. Increases in screen time, urban density, neighbourhood violence, fears of injury and abduction, lack of accessible or affordable recreation and a focus on organized sports all contribute to declining opportunities for informal play and recreation. And under the current pandemic, children’s mental health and emotional well-being will depend on it.

Critical for health, well-being

It is already clear that the mental health effects of the pandemic are pervasive and are likely to persist. Given that 70 per cent of mental disorders begin in childhood, children will need time and space to heal from the collective trauma.

Social relationships, in particular, provide a context for emotional support, enjoyment, creative play, physical activity and the development of social identities — all of which contribute to overall development and well-being. School planning efforts must focus on reducing sustained feelings of isolation and loneliness in order to protect against widespread increases in anxiety, depression and suicide.

Recess can ease the effects of inequality

This pandemic exacerbates the effects of pre-existing social inequality. Many schools in Canada, especially those serving the most vulnerable children, don’t have a history of supporting meaningful, quality recess experiences for students.

Recess is typically overlooked in policy and practice, resulting in minimal funds, supervision and equipment. Canada has one of the highest rates of school-based violence of all the developed nations, disproportionately affecting children from vulnerable populations and undermining the positive benefits of social connection and play.

School environments themselves are telling, especially in our more vulnerable urban neighborhoods: concrete, rusty, barren and soulless. And instead of enjoyment and connection there is boredom, exclusion, conflict, behaviour challenges and violence — factors that promote social patterns that perpetuate inequity in schools. There is much more we can do to support children, and we have an unprecedented opportunity now to do better.

School principal Marie-Claude Bergeron calls out names of students to allow them in the school yard of the Marie-Derome School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., on May 11, 2020. Photo credit THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson).

The right to recess

Yes, recess is a fundamental human right. Canada is a ratified member of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of the 54 articles, one of the most overlooked and unprotected of the rights is Article 31, “the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.”

Schools are not exempt from playing a role in protecting and promoting children’s right to play, rest and leisure. Schools have a responsibility to ensure the recess environment is inclusive, fully accessible, secure from the effects of social harm and appropriate for all genders, ages, stages and abilities.

But what about COVID-19?

Our research group has combined our expertise to provide answers and concrete strategies for a recess that not only works under the current circumstances but paves the way for a better recess. The purpose of our global statement is to provide educators with practical evidence-based strategies that ensure opportunities for healthy, meaningful play while simultaneously minimizing the spread of the virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends segregating recess by class. Smaller groups will not only minimize the spread of the virus but provide an opportunity to ensure recess is much more manageable, inclusive and enjoyable.

5 recommendations

In collaboration with local health officials, schools could consider the following recommendations:

  1. Count recess as instructional time to enable teachers to remain with and support their class, and provide a separate dedicated break time for the teacher.
  2. Schedule at least two sustained periods of recess every day for every child and hold it outdoors whenever possible.
  3. Engage children in planning and ensure they include a continuum of options to choose from. Engage them in setting expectations and rules for health and safety. Provide leadership opportunities for students to help support each other, maintain the equipment and emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion.
  4. Avoid strict rules like “no running” and “no ball throwing” that can undermine the benefits of play and physical activity.
  5. Don’t withhold recess as punishment for missed schoolwork, poor classroom behaviour or any other reason. Instead, ensure that all children have access, feel safe and included and are able to experience meaningful and playful engagement.

This pandemic provides us with an opportunity to rethink — and redesign — the way we support social connection and opportunities for informal play and recreation in school.