At the height of the pandemic, almost half the world spent 18 hours a day in their homes. Thrust into this foreign world of mandatory masks, physical distancing, and panic, the government ordered us to stay home and away from our friends and colleagues. During the moments we weren’t in online lectures or working, many of us flocked to social media.
“Whether it was out of boredom, to learn from current news, or even to find some comfort in knowing the whole world was having similar experiences, my eyes were glued to the screens,” Jacqueline Le, a U of T Masters of Information student, confessed. This is the reality many shared.
A study by Uswitch revealed Americans spent more than 1,300 hours on social media last year. As a consequence of the lockdowns which began in March 2020, monthly active social media users grew across all social media platforms. The allure of social media lies in its ability to distract us from our own reality. App creators continually try to reel us in and keep our attention on the app; sending push notifications with updates we missed or live streams we need to check out.
In my own life, I tried to resist. Yet, little by little, as job rejections piled up and idleness increased, I soon gave in to social media’s tug. As the pandemic waged on, social media—the epicenter for virtual connection—transformed into a source of isolation. In the same place I sought solace, isolation of a different variety spawned.
I sat down with three university students, one masters student, and two recent grads I met during my undergrad or through social media during quarantine to hear their own social media stories. During our conversations, I asked how their social media usage affected them during the lockdowns. Their responses can be described in four symptoms of excessive social media use.
Symptom 1: Loss of connection
“Something as simple as reacting to a story sparked a conversation,” says Trisha Tolentino, a third-year anthropology student from UTM. During the pandemic, she made efforts to reach out to people she didn’t normally communicate with. Tolentino notes how nice it was talking to her peers, even briefly, but that it seldom led to long-lasting friendships. She attributes this unfulfilled desire to her loneliness.
Tolentino detailed her waning friendships too. “I personally felt I wasn’t as close to my friends as before. I feel like we were growing apart without realizing or wanting to until we just stopped talking.”
Like many students, Josh Cooper, a business student at The University of Toledo in Ohio, was forced to migrate back home to Michigan for the remainder of the school year. Although he lived with his parents and little brother, Cooper still sought connection from people outside his immediate family. But when he didn’t receive messages from friends, loneliness took over. “Sometimes I feel like I have nothing else to do but wait for someone to message me,” he said.
Similar to Cooper and Tolentino, my friendships morphed as well. In the beginning, my phone blew up with notifications, so much so that my parents and siblings commented on how I texted excessively during dinnertime.
As the pandemic progressed, my energy diminished. By the second lockdown in Ontario, conversations went stale, resulting in back-and-forth small talk with little meaning:
“Nothing much, you?”
Yet conversations forcefully continued, stirring up a deep frustration within me, and a hunt for a deeper connection.
In a world where social isolation is an epidemic, face-to-face contact “is like a vaccine,” says Susan Pinker, a psychologist on TED Radio Hour from NPR. Face-to-face contact is proven to produce richer conversations along with a plethora of other benefits, including better mental health, a healthier brain, comfort, and a sense of belonging. Still, the measures we took to mitigate the pandemic forced us to forgo face-to-face social interaction and tore some friendships apart. Although communication can happen through social media, the break from the “real world” removes us from the environments where some relationships thrive.
Symptom 2: Social media fatigue
Users flock to social media to escape their reality, but instead, they are bombarded with images that further remind them of their present situation. Social media fatigue is a phenomenon where users overloaded from excessive exposure to social media content desire to withdraw from their screens. Out of the six people I interviewed, five revealed they cut down on their social media usage and four even took time off the platforms.
A huge contributor to social fatigue during the pandemic was the news. News about the virus was not exclusively shared through newspapers and news channels—information also spread on social media. Some refer to the Covid-19 pandemic as the first social media infodemic.
Social media is a channel to disseminate information, but unlike traditional journalism, users don’t need to include their sources, conduct research, or abide by journalistic ethics. As such, misinformation can easily spread especially with the shareability of some social media posts. Consequently, social media sites like Instagram began posting disclaimers alongside any mention of “Covid-19” to combat misinformation.
The onslaught of news about the pandemic festered panic and anxiety. “The news was everywhere. I remember I stopped watching news channels because I was trying to avoid all this Covid stuff. Then you hop on Instagram and it’s the same thing. You hop on TikTok and it’s the same thing,” comments Maya Ramsammy, one of my interviewees and a registered nurse at a long-term care staffing agency called Plan A. She graduated from Humber College in 2020 and immediately started working. As someone who works closely with Covid-19 patients, Ramsammy expresses how constantly seeing pandemic news on social media was distressing. Most of all, seeing her place of work making headlines made going to work harder.
Ramsammy mentions an onset of depression that made her avoid social media and even delete all social media apps off her phone. To distract herself from the abundance of news seeping onto social media, she took up more shifts at long-term care centres and other places. “It wasn’t even the money. I just couldn’t stay home all day after sitting at home for so long. I felt happy to be a nurse and helping people.”
As Tolentino explains, “You come to social media for fun. Your first thought is not to spread the news.” Social media used to be a place for frivolous fun: a place to share updates on life and share posts you relate to. In the past, most of our news came through news channels or newspapers. Now, the prevalence of news at all hours of the day on all platforms contributes to the mental strain experienced by users. Similar to how my safe space, my bedroom, became an all-purpose hub for school, work, and pleasure where no boundaries existed, the absence of separation on social media created exhaustion and mentally-taxed users.
The barrage of images regarding social injustice on social media evoked conflicting feelings among viewers, some expressed how overwhelmed and lost they felt waking up to news of police brutality, anti-blackness, Asian hate, and other social injustice issues on their feed. The younger generation especially led the fight against social injustice, but new issues appeared frequently. As much as Tolentino wanted to help, there were so many causes going around that she felt hopeless.
Social media fatigue caused me to withdraw from friends and social media too, but not completely. The social media management part of my business and work at The Medium operated almost completely through social media, so even though I took ‘breaks,’ I could never truly separate from the platforms. I made some changes, such as turning off notifications and making a habit not to touch my phone immediately after waking up. I felt more productive, less dependent on other people, and happier. I liked the space and the ability to disconnect as needed without repercussions.
Symptom 3: FOMO
“Instagram is the highlight reel of people’s lives. Other social media is a little more balanced where people will share other things, but Instagram isn’t like that,” Tara Monfaredi tells me.
Monfaredi, a recent University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) graduate, went from being busy to unemployed and out of school. Pre-pandemic, Monfaredi worked part-time at a restaurant. However, when the restaurant went bankrupt, she was jobless. Her days, typically divided between work, school, and socializing, were replaced by job hunting and endless scrolling.
The superficiality of social media, and especially Instagram, induced a “fear of missing out,” otherwise known as “FOMO,” among many people including myself. FOMO is a form of social anxiety caused by the belief others are having fun without you. This phenomenon preys on your desire for connection and can lead to extreme dissatisfaction, diminished self-esteem, increased depression, and loneliness.
Monfaredi speaks about a documentary she watched called Fake Famous, which covers social media during the pandemic. In the film, the directors highlight celebrities and influencers who still posted pictures of themselves going all over the world—exempt from travel bans—eating in restaurants, doing photoshoots, and continuing their lives as normal. Meanwhile, people died from Covid-19, businesses went bankrupt, and students struggled to find work.
Social media exacerbates loneliness by presenting images of what we are missing out on. Even throughout the pandemic, some users acted as if the pandemic did not exist, continuing to hang out with their friends and partying. Influencers like Kylie Jenner came under fire for hosting lavish parties amidst Covid-19 restrictions as if the restrictions did not apply to influencers and celebrities.
Being presented with images that don’t align with her reality prompted Ramsammy’s decrease in social media usage: “I actually started to use it less often. The pandemic is obviously worldwide, but you see people having fun and living their life and you can’t really do anything.”
Even with loosening restrictions, as a nursing student placed in Covid-19 units, Ramsammy struggled to connect with her non-nursing friends. “When things actually eased up, a lot of people didn’t want to go out with me because, obviously, I was working with Covid-19 patients.” Our first responders and medical workers are an integral part of fighting against the pandemic, yet the people working their hardest to support those most affected by the pandemic have fewer opportunities to socialize with friends.
FOMO is not exclusively for “fun” activities. We can also feel like we’re missing out when seeing posts about people’s biggest achievements: how they overcame adversity, secured new jobs, maintained high GPAs, and got accepted into graduate programs.
At times, I felt inadequate, like my four years of undergraduate studies and the tens of thousands of dollars in tuition served no purpose. No matter the platform, whether it is Instagram or LinkedIn, there were always people the same age, or even younger, doing things I could only dream about. In those moments, imposter syndrome tugged the hardest. My mental health teetered on the edge.
Social media is a house of illusions. Although we may see others living seemingly happy and free lives, we all have experiences we omit behind the screens, creating distorted perspectives of each other. Easy access to people’s performed lives allows us to easily judge ourselves and others. It instills the constant need to compare.
Symptom 4: Poor mental health
The University of Pittsburgh reported that teens who frequently check and heavily use social media are three times more likely to feel socially isolated. We go to social media to cure boredom, but instead, we are reminded that we are alone. Social comparison leads to psychological distress. A longitudinal study conducted by Italian psychology and social science professors revealed higher rates of distress post-quarantine.
These apps provided endless opportunities for scrolling, making it easy to get lost in content or messaging people online. “We couldn’t see each other face-to-face so we had to make do with our situations,” Jacqueline Le says. Pursuing her master’s and working as a library assistant, the shutdown forced Le to work and study at home. “But after a few months of staying up until 4 a.m. playing video games, sleeping in past noon, and spending the rest of the day scrolling through TikTok, it was making my mental health terrible.”
After going down a spiral of social media, Le felt sluggish, lazy, and demotivated. However, after a while, she made the conscious decision to change. “I’ve been taking many phone and computer breaks and removing links and apps to stay away from being online. I only check when it’s necessary and I do my best to keep distracted with chores or reading books to reduce screen time.”
Gladys Lou, a third-year art & art history student at UTM, also described the adverse side effects of staying indoors. She admitted to feeling “frustrated and trapped” when sitting in her house too long, even though she connects with friends on social media. To get out of her stupor she went on walks.
Going outside, however, was a luxury in Ontario’s first lockdown. Ramsammy reminded me that the government shut down all parks and nature spots and restricted travel to essential-only trips. Although transmission was relatively low outdoors, the panic-mongering led to the closure of these peaceful spots.
Not only does time outside fill us with vitamin D, but nature also alleviates anxiety and stress. In-person socialization works similarly. Humans need connection. Socialization is the foundation of a happy, healthy life. Socialization wards off feelings of loneliness, a contributor to poor mental health and unhappiness. Covid-19 not only affected people’s bodies, but it messed with their mental state, even if they never were physically infected with the virus.
As Tolentino pointed out, “social media isn’t a substitute for actual socializing.” It simply acts as an alternative method to socialize. “You can talk to people, but it is not the same as meeting them in person.” She describes the experience of the loosening restrictions as glaringly different compared to the time she spent video calling or messaging her friends on social. At the end of the day, as Tolentino puts it, “you are still alone even when talking” on social media.
So, we log off and feel more isolated than before. It’s a continuous cycle of isolation perpetuated by an unexpected virus.
Nevertheless, social media is not the complete antagonist I wanted it to be. Social media and I remain in a committed, complicated relationship. In some ways, it drew me closer to people I may never have known otherwise—such as the interviewees in this article—and in other ways, it amplified the non-substantial friendships I held on to. Though spiteful of the moment of isolation and loneliness, I am grateful for the opportunity isolation afforded; it stripped me of the superficial and robed me with the reminder of who I am. Perhaps, after much reflection, my issue was never with social media, but rather with the change isolation invoked.
It took my sickness with social media to realize focusing on myself was the cure.