Our collective screen time is on the rise. The reasons are obvious: we are spending more time indoors, we have fewer opportunities to socialise in person, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to stay connected. I’ve found myself settling for a quick ‘thinking of you’ text over setting up an in-person meeting more times than I’d like to count. It’s easier to stay in touch virtually, I tell myself, eyes glued to the screen as I type out another 30-second summary of what has transpired in my life over the past month and a half.
Why does social fatigue feel so real over cyber-waves? I’d be hard-pressed to deny that our ready acceptance of digital mediums as valid modes of socialising has made friendships and relationships easier in some ways (especially in the see-me-not, touch-me-not era of a global pandemic), but in others, it has created pockets of obligation rather than moments of genuine connection. Saying no to girls’ night because you’re faced with a busy week at work seems fair, but how about neglecting to respond to a text chain for the same reason? In both situations, you’re disengaging from your social life, but, clearly, one seems more acceptable than the other. Since participating online seems easier than showing up in person—logistically, at least, how hard is it to shoot back a message?—it feels as though there hangs an expectation over everyone to always be present.
The reason for this, as Aleesha Khan, who shares her personal experiences about mental health issues on her Instagram page, hypothesises, is that clear boundaries seldom exist in the digital world. Our perceived lack of agency in the virtual sphere is not inherent, but is likely a reflection of the greater lack of control we experience online. As consumers of a vast and varied digital diet, we are rarely able to determine what we see, especially on algorithm-run social media platforms like Instagram. Activism fatigue, a form of emotional burnout caused by the overconsumption of negative and oftentimes depressing news, is also sped up online, where information is rampant and rapid, and often arrives without us seeking it out.
“Because of the work I do, people sometimes assume that I want to hear news of every bad thing that ever happens to women,” says Khan, who runs her mental health and sexual violence advocacy organisation alongside pursuing a master’s degree in psychotherapy. “I know it doesn’t come from a bad place, but the barrage of messages can be very draining on my mental health.”
“Digital boundaries come from a place of self-preservation and self-care, not hostility”
Count in new systems of working from home destroying our work-life separation and you have a recipe for disaster. Do we lack the ability to set boundaries online? No, proposes Khan, we’ve just been conditioned not to. “You should see my block list,” she jokes. “My friends call me the queen of boundaries. I block people readily, whether they’re harmful and spreading negative messages online, making me hate my body, or just plain irritating. Part of digital boundary setting is curating a space online that genuinely feels safe to you.”
Still, it’s easier said than done. We are finding ourselves in what can only be described as an attention economy, where the combination of your awareness and time is one of the most valuable commodities you possess. In this world, views and likes equal dollars and cents. Content creators, whether they be behemoth organisations or independently motivated individuals, are incentivised to keep you swiping, scrolling and double-tapping.
According to Dr Crystal Abidin, associate professor and principal research fellow of Internet studies at Curtin University, much of this is by design, and starts from the base unit of our digital consumption—our apps. “Platforms play a very important role in how we receive information online through things like algorithms, censorship, shadow-banning and recommendation systems. TikTok for example, tries to be very sensitive to the micro-interactions of users. So if you’ve been looking at videos of, let’s say, kids playing games, and you interact with a few TikToks of kids playing with toy guns, it’s not at all surprising that the next things you see are actual weapons.”
So what can be done to counteract the chaos of virtual engagement? Abidin looks to a concept known as digital hygiene. Just like physical hygiene, it requires concerted, regular effort, but is necessary for the long-term health of your digital existence. Be honest, how many unwelcome notifications do you get each day that you swipe off without a second thought? I’m talking about everything from apps that you haven’t opened in months (Duolingo, anyone?) to your favourite astrology guide—anything, in fact, that can send you push notifications. Setting your phone up to only send you the notifications you want or need is part of digital hygiene, alongside practices like demarcating Internet-free zones in your home, prescribing a daily deadline for checking work emails, and keeping blue light out of your space close to bedtime.
“Since participating online seems easier than showing up in person, it feels as though there hangs an expectation over everyone to always be present”
But back to my original question: can online engagement be a healthy way to keep up with your friends and acquaintances, or is it just another way to add anxiety to your life? The key, apparently, lies in consent. Just like offline interaction, do it when you really want to, and it can be an effective way of staying connected. But don’t let it turn into an obligation because, despite the ostensibly constant, easy availability an online relationship implies, it can be just as taxing as an offline one.
Khan suggests setting online boundaries just as firmly as you would set offline ones. “Very often, I will tell someone, hey, please don’t send me posts like these. Or I’ll let my friends know that I won’t have the energy to respond for a while. It’s also important to practise not apologising because why should you feel sorry for your needs? If someone is disappointed because of a boundary you’ve set, that’s okay. Hold space for their disappointment and be comfortable with it. Because over time, people will realise that boundaries come from a place of self-preservation and self-care, not hostility.”
Illustration Clarice Ng (C+C&CO)