As South Africans continue to live under restrictions on social gatherings and movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many rely on social media to maintain relations with family and friends. Social media’s ability to connect individuals and help them keep up to date with the latest events induces positive feelings of affirmation and entertainment. Unfortunately, for some, an increased dependence on and excessive use of social networks leads to social media fatigue.
What is social media fatigue?
Social networks have brought convenience to people’s daily lives by facilitating communication, increasing knowledge and providing entertainment. However, these positive feelings can turn into more negative ones such as stress, anxiety and fatigue. International publisher, IGI Global, describes social media fatigue as the phenomenon whereby a social media user experiences some extent of mental exhaustion due to spending excessive time on social media networks. It is a subjective feeling of tiredness and the extent varies among people.
This exhaustion may be the result of a content and connection overload. A 2016 study by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, titled “Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks?”, links the connection overload experienced by some social media users to the idea that humans cannot cope with an excessive network of relationships. Dunbar proposed that humans are only capable of maintaining stable social relationships within a limited range of people. After conducting experiments on primates in the 1990s, Dunbar found that their brain size seemed to determine the sizes of their social groups. From the results of his experiment, he then proposed that the human brain can maintain stable relationships with roughly 150 people.
In addition to managing an ever-expanding network of friends and acquaintances, users may experience an information overload. This refers to an excessive consumption of content, and in the digital sphere, users can greatly expand their social circles and consume content tailored to their liking. Algorithmic technology, such as those used by TikTok and YouTube, ensures that users are exposed to content they are more likely to enjoy, making it more convenient to rely on social media to find content that matches their personal preferences.
“Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks?”
A 2014 study titled Antecedents and Effects of Social Network Fatigue found that those who heavily indulged in social media were more likely to develop some form of psychological distress and experience a deterioration in emotional conditions. As social media content starts to influence daily life, it can also blur the lines between one’s online and offline life. The content consumed may also induce feelings of inferiority or envy that may lead to mental exhaustion or emotional stress. As individuals selectively post positive and interesting information about their lives, the content generated may revolve around positive life experiences and success. This leads to self-comparison among social media users that can be harmful to mental health.
How do individuals respond to the fatigue?
For some, a coping mechanism for social media fatigue is the suspension or deactivation of social media accounts until the user feels ready to enter the social media space again. Some people go as far as quitting specific social media platforms or social media networks altogether. In some cases, the user may struggle to disconnect from social media use due to a fear of missing out – or FOMO. This is when constant social media use is driven by the fear of missing out on the latest trends, news and events. Users may experience some level of unease about missing gratifying experiences or relevant information, and this drives them to stay connected to the internet space. The use of platforms such as WhatsApp for work and academic related issues also makes it difficult for people to disconnect completely.
“As social media content starts to influence daily life, it can also blur the lines between one’s online and offline life.”
Managing social media fatigue
According to Thrive Global, a technology company dedicated to supporting individuals suffering from stress and burnout, it is important to unplug and set limits when experiencing social media fatigue. As this is a difficult task, disconnecting gradually may make it easier. This includes eliminating unneeded information by unfollowing certain pages and unsubscribing from sites and emails that are not important – generating less content and decluttering information received on a daily basis. Preventative measures that stave off overreliance on social media are equally important. Setting limits to the time that one can spend on social media sites can help to control this.
Personal Excellence, a site dedicated to personal growth, encourages social media users to be selective about the content they consume. It is essential to connect consciously and ask what benefits are gained from following pages, sites or individuals. Another way to manage social media fatigue is to be authentic in social media posts. Constant exaggeration or false portrayals of one’s life may become cumbersome and fuel self-comparison that is detrimental to mental health. It is also important to create a life outside of the internet. Through actions such as taking up an off-screen activity or developing creative hobbies, it may become easier to manage the mental exhaustion that stems from constant social media use.