The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media During Quarantine
Clinical Impact Statement: Recent public polls and research studies indicate that individuals are at a greater risk of experiencing social media fatigue and other social media-related distress during quarantine. The risk factors associated with this distress are reviewed, as well as considerations for providing therapeutic support.
As therapists and as people, we are acutely aware of the many sources of distress impacting psychological wellbeing, stressors which have been exacerbated as the global pandemic shut down the world and forced us to adopt social distancing measures. However, since March, I have observed and cultivated insight into a unique source of distress that is emerging among the clients I see as a part of my private practice. I’ll start with an example from one client who stated, “I’ve been having a lot of insomnia this past week. And, well, I know what’s causing it, but it’s stupid.” When he shared this, he seemed sheepish and embarrassed to talk about this issue in therapy, although it was clearly impacting his psychological and physical health. “I know it shouldn’t be a big deal, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about what this guy posted on Facebook about COVID. It was just so wrong, like factually inaccurate, and it didn’t seem to matter what I said, he just refused to hear me.” This client, who has a career in the medical industry, went on to describe his ruminating thoughts, with shock and despair that someone in his social circle would accept the misinformation prevalent on social media. His story piqued my curiosity about the effects of social media consumption on mental health during this particularly isolated and polarized time in United States history.
Through the summer and fall, as the election has drawn nearer, a number of my clients have shared similar stories of anxiety, frustration, and ruminating thoughts related to social media platforms and content with which they engage. Another person with whom I work is a long-term civil rights activist who is well-seasoned in the art of engaging with those who view the world differently than she does. However, even she has begun to struggle with managing anxiety and exhaustion. In August, she shared, “I got so angry I almost threw my phone out the window. I know some of these people from the community - they’re not bots or trolls - and they’re using these ridiculous political memes as the foundation of their beliefs. How do I argue with that?” The frustration and reactivity she felt occurred in the privacy of her home and without a true forum for conflict resolution.
It should be no surprise that the current national and global climate of fear has contributed to widespread mental health challenges. Since March, our nation has faced a relentless global pandemic, wide and public recognition of the pervasive nature of systemic racism, civil rights protests, and an ever-increasing political and ideological divide leading up to the presidential election. However, it is not these events on their own that have been identified by my clients as the sources of distress. Rather, it is the way these events are being presented and discussed on social media that has created a significant sense of turmoil. As I began to track the emergence of these conversations in session, I was left wondering what makes social media a unique stressor during this tumultuous time. Is there something inherently stressful about sharing and receiving information through social media that is harder for people to manage? Is it a situational stressor related to our inability to interact with each other in person? Are we spending more time on social media due to social distancing, and is that leading to greater amounts of exposure to misinformation and divisiveness? And as a therapist, how can I best support my clients as they process the emotions they feel in response to what they see?
As I began exploring this issue, I found that the trends I was observing in my caseload are not unique. In fact, I want to highlight some striking findings from a series of polls that call attention to various dimensions of the lived experiences of people during the pandemic who are consuming social media.
- “One-third of Americans reported experiencing high levels of psychological distress at some point during the extended period of social distancing (Pew Research Foundation, May 2020).”
- “Seventy-eight percent of U.S. adults believe that false or inaccurate information about the coronavirus has been a major problem. Most of the rest say it has been a minor problem.” These opinions held true despite political affiliation, and 68% of participants identified social media as the main source of this misinformation (Jones, 2020).
- “74% of Americans are very concerned about the spread of misinformation on the internet (Knight Foundation, March 2020).”
- “More Americans say it is harder (62%) rather than easier (36%) to be well-informed because of all the sources of information available (Knight Foundation, August 2020).”
- “More than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) say that the 2020 U.S. presidential election is a significant source of stress in their life … regardless of political affiliation (American Psychological Association, October 2020).”
Prior to these trends which have been documented in 2020, much of the research I encountered addressing social media-related distress focused on the addictive aspects of scrolling, the fear of missing out (FOMO), and privacy concerns. These aspects are certainly still relevant in our current situation, but over the past six months, the purview of social media-related distress has broadened and seems to be extending to subsets of clients who did not previously report experiencing it. What is happening today may be an extension of a phenomenon termed “social media fatigue,” which is defined as negative feelings of exhaustion and being overwhelmed resulting from information and communication overload through using social media (Bright et al., 2015). The increase in sociopolitical and pandemic specific content being disseminated may be heightening this sense of overload.
Moreover, several studies have shed light on who is at higher risk of social media fatigue and ways to better manage it. Bright et al. (2015) found that users who had a high degree of self-efficacy in using social media and those who viewed social media as a helpful resource experienced higher rates of social media fatigue. These findings suggest that individuals who feel comfortable using social media and have positive views of it, tend to spend significantly more time on social media sites, thereby increasing their risk of communication and information overload. It is likely that the confidence these individuals feel may prevent them from being aware of the risk of such overload. Talwar et al. (2019) found that users who had a strong desire to authenticate the information they encounter online also experience higher levels of fatigue. This has come up with my clients as well. One client reported, “I wasted a whole hour searching fact-checking websites to see if this post was true or not, and afterward I felt awful. I wish I had used that time to work around the house or practice some self-care.” A recent study by Islam et al. (2020) expanded on this search for risk factors, identifying that individuals who have poor self-regulation skills are at greater risk of social media fatigue. This study found that individuals who are characterized as “explorers,” meaning those who have a desire to seek out novel topics and content with curiosity and openness, are at a greater risk of social media fatigue as well. While we typically think of these traits as being positive, they may not be serving people under these specific circumstances.
Social media consumption during these trying times may actually be a double-edged sword.
A Gallup poll published in May 2020 found that “seventy-four percent of Americans who use social media say it has been ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ important to them personally as a way to stay connected with people who are close to them that they may not be able to see in person during the coronavirus situation.” Indeed, people are reliant on social media to maintain contact with loved ones. Therefore, along with the challenges posed above, people have a need for connection that is difficult to meet in other ways when many families, friends, and colleagues must engage with one another from a distance.
With this complex issue in mind, it is important for psychotherapists to consider how best to support clients with social media-related distress and social media fatigue. In my personal experience with clients around this issue, many people have identified embarrassment about the degree to which they are impacted by negative experiences on social media. It is important to validate the frustration, exhaustion, and stress that can result from online interactions, as well as to provide psychoeducation on the risk factors that may lead some clients to heightened levels of distress and fatigue (e.g., dedicating time to authenticating news stories). Cultivating self-regulation skills may assist clients in setting healthy boundaries around the amount of time and the ways in which they engage with social media. The challenging truth is that how we advise our clients during these trying times is often what we ourselves need to hear. It is human for us and for our clients to need social connection, and we must be careful and clear about how it impacts us.
Cite This Article
Lawson, K., & Drinane, J. (2020). The double-edged sword of social media during quarantine. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 55(4), 28-31.
American Psychological Association (2020, October 7). 2020 Presidential Election a Source of Significant Stress for More Americans than 2016 Presidential Race. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/10/election-stress
Bright, L. F., Kleiser, S. B., & Grau, S. L. (2015). Too much Facebook? An exploratory examination of social media fatigue. Computers in Human Behavior, 44, 148–155.
Islam, A. K. M. N., Laato, S., Talukder, S., & Sutinen, E. (2020). Misinformation sharing and social media fatigue during COVID-19: An affordance and cognitive load perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 159, 120201.
Jones, J. M. (2020, May 11). Americans Struggle to Navigate COVID-19 “Infodemic.” Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/310409/americans-struggle-navigate-covid-infodemic.aspx
Knight Foundation. (2020, March 11). Techlash? America’s Growing Concern With Major Technology Companies. https://knightfoundation.org/reports/techlash-americas-growing-concern-with-major-technology-companies/
Knight Foundation. (2020, August 4). American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy. https://knightfoundation.org/reports/american-views-2020-trust-media-and-democracy/
Pew Research Center. (2020, May 7). A third of Americans experienced high levels of psychological distress during the coronavirus outbreak. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/05/07/a-third-of-americans-experienced-high-levels-of-psychological-distress-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/
Ritter, Z. (2020, May 21). Americans Use Social Media for COVID-19 Info, Connection. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/311360/americans-social-media-covid-information-connection.aspx
Talwar, S., Dhir, A., Kaur, P., Zafar, N., & Alrasheedy, M. (2019). Why do people share fake news? Associations between the dark side of social media use and fake news sharing behavior. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 51, 72–82.