A study published in Nature Portfolio investigates the relationship between one’s sense of self during the COVID-19 lockdown and increased digital intake.

According to the study, a shift toward a hyperdigitalized lifestyle and self-isolation can lead to dissociative disorders. Depersonalization is described as feeling detached from one’s self. Those who experience this phenomenon express concern about feeling outside of one’s body, feeling on autopilot, or experiencing the sensation of floating. Normally triggered by severe trauma or emotional distress, derealization, or the feeling of living in a different world or dream-like state, forces one’s self to reach an extreme detachment from one’s environment. When experienced chronically, it can lead to a diagnosis of depersonalization-derealization disorder.

In an international online study, 622 participants completed the Cambridge Depersonalization Scale (CDS-29) questionnaire and lifestyle survey to identify experiences of depersonalization and vividness of positive or negative emotions before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Notable shifts in behavior were reported, including as living a more sedentary lifestyle with fewer physical meetings and proximal movements (ie, touching less surfaces, objects, or people). Study participants reported spending more time watching movies, television, and YouTube videos; playing video games; and meeting people online rather than participating in physical activities, manual work, visiting others, or exercising.

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The researchers found that although most participants remained connected online with others during the pandemic, an increase in digital communication also increased depersonalization experiences. Negative emotions during the lockdown were also more vivid vs positive emotions experienced.

Limitations of the study included data from 2 principal component analyses (PCA): one PCA measured the frequency of each activity while the other PCA identified the differences in lifestyle habits performed before and during the pandemic. The lifestyle survey required each participant to recall daily life from 6 months prior, which could potentially compromise the results. Also, the season of each country may have varied for each participant (ie, summer involving outdoor activities vs winter involving indoor activities).

The researchers concluded, “Our study may help to tackle key questions related to human well-being in the general population during a lockdown. Our results suggest that paradoxically, increasing online social interactions and digital activities may have negative effects in some people, such as inducing feelings of living more in one’s ‘head’ (mind) and less in one’s body. These findings point also to potential risks related to overly sedentary and hyper-digitalized lifestyle habits that may make people feel less ‘real’ and less connected with their close physical and social environment.”


Ciaunica A, McEllin L, Kiverstein J Gallese V, Hohwy J, Woźniak M. Zoomed out: digital media use and depersonalization experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown. Sci Rep. 2022;12:3888. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-07657-8

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor