International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Covideo Parties and Zoom Fatigue

On the paradox of talking online about digital exhaustion

by Dr. Paula Helm

08 Feb 2021 · The Corona pandemic has profoundly changed lives around the globe. In addition to the immediate health dangers of the pandemic, physical distancing also poses challenges to psychological and social well-being. The long-term psycho-social consequences are impossible to predict. In these problematic times, solutions based on digital technologies play a central role. For example, digital platforms offer manifold opportunities to improve emotional stability, for example by connecting and sharing with others during periods of lockdowns. They also play a central role in enabling new forms of platform-based remote working. They enable the creation of a space that is literally virus-free and thus seemingly completely unproblematic in terms of health, in which daily work routines can also be maintained from home.


Of course, the intensive use and embedding of digital technologies in all areas of daily life did not begin with the Corona pandemic. But corona has massively intensified and accelerated this development. The pandemic functions like a digitization catalyst. It began at a time when all the structures were already in place to shift all public life to the ether within just a few weeks. It is therefore not surprising that employees, managers, students and parents were required to rapidly become accustomed to the new situation.


Despite our ability to adapt swiftly, and despite all the undeniable advantages and potentials, the economic and emotional dependence on digital solutions and their (commercial) providers, which has increased dramatically with the Corona pandemic, is also accompanied by risks. These are as much at the level of individual health as they are at that of social power imbalances. On the one hand, the constant availability, the permanent confrontation with new horror news and the many hours in front of the screen can lead to new forms of stress and exhaustion, which find expression in popular neologisms such as "zoom-fatigue," "doomscrolling" or "digital burnout."

On the other hand, the gap between those who have high-quality devices and digital skills and those who lack them (see also digital divide) is increasing, as is the already enormous power of large technology companies, which many experts and observers describe as increasingly " alarming".


It is difficult to bring these two perspectives together - that is, the socio-technical and the psycho-emotional - and yet it seems obvious to me that in this case (as in so many others) they are deeply intertwined.  Why do we keep reaching for our devices although we realize we would do better to draw clear boundaries? Following the arguments of leading media psychologists and communication scientists, is it primarily the social incentives that seem to weigh so heavily that we are willing to tweet, email, scroll, post, like, and share to the point of exhaustion, revealing valuable data about ourselves in the process? Or, following the arguments of many social anthropologists and philosophers of technology, is it, moreover, the manipulative design of the platforms, which is such that we have little choice but to lose control over time on device? Most likely it is a combination of both. This view can be illustrated by reflecting on the seemingly paradoxical behavior in which, in times of pandemic distancing, we indulge in the seemingly absurd activity of sharing online about our digital exhaustion.


For many people, social exchange is of elemental importance to their mental and emotional health. This refers not only to the desire to share happiness, but also to the often pressing need to share experiences with fellow sufferers. The positive influence of support and self-help groups is just one of many examples that can be used to illustrate this statement. It is therefore not surprising that many people currently feel the need to start a discourse about the exhaustion and frustration they feel when they are thrown back on digital exchange. Central themes here are the dissolution of boundaries between work and privacy, the affordances of the platforms, which are often designed for superficial communication, the lack of physicality, the feeling of emptiness that remains despite tweeting, posting and retweeting, and the - not least - worrying power of large platform operators, to whose conditions we have to consent if we do not want to become completely isolated, socially marginalized and possibly even lose our jobs. The absurd thing is that the current discourse about digital exhaustion and criticism of platform power is being conducted on the very platforms it is dealing with.


What does this paradox say about the times we live in right now? We could also write letters to each other, we could meditate, pray, take refuge from the viruses in nostalgia or esotericism. While some certainly do (potentially also online), the majority of members of Western societies obviously prefer to flee into the enlightened digital - even if we cannot yet foresee what consequences this will have for our psyches and our societies (whistleblowers from companies like Google and Facebook, however, think they know when they warn that “social media is ripping apart societies” and “will undermine democracy”[1]). If we want to communicate our concerns to the public, the easiest way to do so is via the very platforms whose influence, whose business models and whose partly manipulative and encroaching design tricks we criticize.


However, as we know, the easiest way is not necessarily the most effective and certainly not the most sustainable. Thus, there are many movements and communities that consciously distance themselves from the dominant platforms and, for example, create open source wikis themselves or choose fee-based but more privacy-sensitive providers. However, in order to ensure safe, healthy and sustainable use and diversity among providers, it is not enough to rely on the autodidactic efforts of users. Especially not when use is no longer voluntary but becomes mandatory, as is now the case in many places with teleworking or home schooling. Here, government institutions must create framework conditions, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to which we owe the fact that the video conferencing provider "Zoom" was forced to readjust its data protection policy. But it is not only the protection of privacy that deserves government regulation. So does protection against manipulative designs. Here, however, there is still considerable need for action. The Corona pandemic and the fact that we are not only infrastructurally but also emotionally thrown back on digital technologies should have made this clear at the latest.


[1] See for example Williams, J. (2018): Stand Out of Our Light. Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, Cambridge University Press, which was written by a former Googler, or, which was founded by former Googler or see the statements made by former Facebook employers Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya at Stanford

and BBC: