Healing from digital burnout, web distress in 2021

Covid's impact on human behaviour


The world has witnessed a substantial increase in internet consumption for both work and leisure ever since nations across the globe started implementing social restrictions to minimise the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Global statistics indicate that time spent on digital activity has increased by 57% for watching streaming web-series/shows, 47% for social media, 46% on messenger services, 39% on listening to streaming music services, 36% more time on mobile applications, 35% increased time for video games, 15% for creating and uploading videos and 14% more time on listening to podcasts.

These findings corroborate with statistics about the use of devices. The time spent on smartphones has gone up by 76%, 45% for laptops, 32% for desktops, 22% for tablet devices, 34% for smart TV or streaming devices, 17% for gaming consoles, 11% for smart speakers and 6.3% on smart watches.

Similar findings have been reported from India too with respect to increased time spent online. COVID-19 has led to the emergence of several behavioral phenomena:

Digital Burnout

Burnout is being included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon rather than as a medical condition.

The use of digital platforms that offer video conferencing features for work, hobby classes, entertainment concerts and social meetings increased exponentially during the lockdown.  Research has equated excessive use of social media to what is termed background listening, where users keep getting bits of information, news, conversations and chats as a backdrop, throughout the day.

This, along with other online activities for work and leisure, create a pressure to respond and participate. One ends up doing just that, for fear of missing out (FOMO) something or for getting information, updates or videos about COVID-19. As a result, offline leisure activities are ignored.

This phenomenon of background listening has led more and more people to spend nearly all waking hours online. Feelings of apprehension and anxiety, in the anticipation of incoming information, follows. It also leads to psychological distress when unable to access the latest updates.

COVID 19 has also led to an increased use of online modes for academics, work, tele-consultation and online meetings. The demands (subjective or environmental) for being online most of the time are being associated with high levels of physiological activation, feelings of tension, perceived expectations, discomfort, worry and anxiety. 

Being permanently online has also contributed to digital stress. Psychological outcomes of this are lack of work engagement, minimal satisfaction, decreased productivity, fatigue, physical and mental exhaustion and eventually burnout.  

Digital stress affects the coping mechanism for communication overload, be it via online platforms, digital media, news, social media and internet multitasking.

Webinar Distress 

Covid-19 has caused a significant increase in the usage of video conferencing apps like Zoom, one of the most downloaded apps in March 2020. This platform now allows about 20 times more users to meet digitally at any given time than before the start of the pandemic.

Webinars suddenly became most wanted due to the novelty of learning from the comfort of one’s own home. People got access to global perspectives from webinars. This made webinars popular and cost effective. 

But the increase in the use of video conferencing has led to the emergence of a new phenomenon known as “Webinar Distress”, a condition indicative of unfavorable physical and mental health consequences from excessive consumption of content through webinars.

There is an almost unseen force that attracts individuals to these webinars. The likely reasons to attend webinars appear to be the availability of a lot of webinars for free, perceived pressure to attend as friends and colleagues are attending, and increased perceived peer pressure to attend as many webinars as possible.

The inability to attend these webinars often induces a sense of guilt, anxiety or FOMO.

It was being reported that even small transmission delays during online meetings shape our views of others negatively. If there is a delay of 1.2 seconds over the digital meeting platforms, it makes people perceive the responder as less friendly or less focused. In fact, online meetings require more attention in comparison to face to face meetings as one needs to be attentive and focused throughout the meeting for verbal and non-verbal components from all individuals participating in the meeting. All these factors contribute to feelings of exhaustion which in turn leads to digital stress and digital burnout.

The pathway to fatigue and burnout appears to be accelerated by excessive use of digital devices and near constant online presence.  

Follow digital hygiene

These findings indicate that digital technology appears to be causing increasing challenges in maintaining a balance between time spent on online and offline activities. Digital hygiene, comprising the following steps, may be the way forward to minimise the risk of digital burnout:

  • Taking frequent breaks from screen use.
  • Structured hours for online office work. Demarcated time for online leisure activities.
  • Engagement in indoor physical activities.
  • Secure time spent for offline communication with family members.
  • Stopping use of digital devices and online activity one hour before sleep time.
  • Avoiding caffeine use to delay sleep time.

Clearly, there is need to explore evidence of the mediating processes which make digital technology beneficial, versus detrimental, to its users.

COMBATING DIGITAL ADDICTION: Service for Healthy Use of Technology Clinic (SHUT Clinic) at the NIMHANS Centre for Well Being, an initiative of the Department of Clinical Psychology, at NIMHNS, Bengaluru, is the first clinic in India established for assessment and management of technology addiction. Excessive use of technology and the promotion of healthy use of internet is an emerging concern among the community and mental health professionals. The SHUT clinic was set up to bring awareness in the community, offer intervention for excessive use, train manpower, develop assessment tools and intervention programmes for the promotion of healthy use of technology and management of technology addiction.


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About Dr Nitin Anand 1 Article
Dr Nitin Anand is associate professor of clinical psychology and consultant at SHUT Clinic, NIMHANS, Bengaluru.