“Let’s Zoom!” has become the catch phrase of my summer. I can’t be with my friends for end-of-year festivities. So, we organise quizzes on Zoom. There’s a tension as we wait for each person to connect, and then a round of awkward waves followed by yet more awkward silences.
Then three people talk at once. Someone teleports themselves to a beach. Someone’s dog usurps the microphone. There’s something simultaneously endearing and yet performative about the whole evening. After another round of waves, I end up turning off my laptop around 9pm after over 12 hours of having it open.
Then I turn to my socials, the only other way that I have to connect with people. Being categorised as “vulnerable,” even now that things are slowly becoming “normal” again, they’re not for me. My phone has become my lifeline to freedom, to friendship, and to fighting.
Fighting for survival. Fighting for equality. All my posts are united by some strange desire that I must fight to have a voice. Because if people don’t hear me online, will they even remember that I exist at all? When I go back to Durham in October, after more than half a year away from it all, what will people remember of my voice?
So, I do it. Day in, day out. Feeling the pressure to post. To “socialise.” To pretend that everything is normal. To have a voice. But, at the end of the day, my eyes are tired. I don’t feel motivated to do my dissertation reading; with no access to libraries, it’s another hour or more on a screen. Yet I watch TV. I “chat.” I type. I email. I zoom. And all the while, as I zoom further and further in, my mental health is zooming further and further out.
This is digital burnout. Arguably, it was coming before the pandemic; the last 5 years have seen an increase in the number of students aged 16-25 diagnosed with conditions such as anxiety and depression, and digital pressure has been widely viewed as a major contributing factor.
But now, it’s like someone has pressed fast forward; the balance between healthy social media usage and destructive digital engagement seems to be slipping out of control. According to my phone, prior to lockdown, I spent an average of 2 hours on my phone. Yesterday, I was on it for 6 and a half hours and picked it up over 100 times. I doubt that I’m alone.
So what can I do? What can we do? I think we first need to recognise the signs of digital burnout in ourselves. Some warning signs may look like: increased use of technology, decreased motivation or energy, difficulty concentrating, and heightened anxiety. Second, we need to make a conscious effort to slowly decrease dependence; like a smoker stopping smoking, do we expect to distance ourselves from technology or social media completely?
I think this is unrealistic. Even though a fifth of 18-25 year olds have adopted the approach of taking a complete social media detox, I question whether this is sustainable. For me, a slow and gradual approach is more effective; using app blockers or “focus” mode on my phone for 1 to 3 hours at a time with short breaks is manageable.
Then, in the long term, we can re-evaluate the content we follow. We can take longer breaks. We can track our habits and try and retrain ourselves to engage in the things we loved in those days before Covid: reading, walking, running, yoga, dance, cooking, singing.
But, like with many mental health conditions, growth starts within. Today, it starts with me. It starts by my self-realisation that my voice is strong enough to stay within the confines of my bedroom walls, and that I don’t need constant validation to feel known.
I am deeply known by myself and by those who love me and that is enough. It will be a journey to turn off the screen. To let go. To listen. But I’ll take step one. And, today, that is enough.
Illustration: Heidi Januszewski