In-Scope: Three elements of social burn out and how brands can help consumers cope

Karli Germann is a Social Executive for OMD Create Sydney, solving a range of challenges with innovative content and social-lead solutions.

Over the course of the last decade, the digital world has given rise to a social revolution. Social media has become a powerful tool that now ‘binds together communities that were once geographically isolated, greatly increasing the pace and intensity of collaboration,’ making these once-remote communities densely networked to the point where ‘their cultural influence has become direct and substantial’ (Holt, 2016, p. 42).

People can now maintain an array of social connections, have access to different support networks and can obtain more information than ever before. In addition, social media has drastically altered the speed and simplicity with which people connect all over the world and has radically transformed the way people consume news. Not to mention, social media has influenced the English vocabulary by constructing new words that have officially ended up in the Oxford Dictionary – ‘selfie’, ‘photobomb’, ‘hashtag’, ‘unlike’, ‘Tweet’, ‘troll’, ‘FOMO’ –  just to name a few.

Social media has also provided great opportunities for business owners and brands. Users choose whether or not to follow a brand’s page, which gives rise to genuinely interested and engaged audiences, with the added benefit of monitoring how audiences interact with content in real-time. Companies can also create greater brand awareness by simply having a presence on certain social media platforms. Furthermore, advertising on social media is generally more cost-effective when compared with traditional forms of advertising.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive impact social media has on the lives of many and the massive role it plays within current media ecosystems, there are several downsides of using social media that are beginning to take a toll on both its users and its advertisers, by proxy. Users are starting to become increasingly fatigued by their social feeds, resulting in what has been coined ‘social burnout’. The term is defined by ambivalence, emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation with social media, each of which can negatively influence a user’s continuance (Han, 2016).

Ambivalence – the degree to which a user feels ambiguous about the favorable outcomes from using social media

Research suggests an increasing number of users feel a sense of ambivalence toward social media. On the one hand, social media is celebrated and is believed to enhance lives and the make the world a better place. On the other hand, social media can feel dehumanising and some fear that it may lead to the disintegration of meaningful communication and genuine human relationships. This unclear space between the favourable outcomes of social media usage can surface in several different ways. For instance, consider the following uncertainties often experienced when using social media channels:

  • the pleasure of documenting meaningful life events, alongside the anxiety surrounding FOMO (Fear of Missing Out); and
  • the flip side to FOMO: Fear of Being Missed (FOBM), which suggests anxiety surrounds not only the ability to keep up with others’ on-goings, but the anxiety to simply keep up (Davis, 2012).

As users continue to compare their lives to others, they become more compelled to share their own experiences, giving rise to a balancing act of staying visible without completely losing themselves to the ‘virtual world’ of social media (Davis, 2012).

Despite general ambivalence toward the favourable outcomes of using social media, the fact that it is so intertwined with both the personal and the professional lives of many, makes it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to opt-out and silence the noise, thus making ambivalence and non-optionality driving factors of social burnout.

Emotional exhaustion – the degree to which a user feels emotionally exhausted when using social media

In many ways, social media has become the spoon with which users are continually fed news and information from around the globe. Within the current political climate, it is no surprise users are beginning to feel overwhelmed, anxious and fatigued by their own feeds. In a 2018 U.S. Murphy Research study commissioned by Snap Inc., researchers asked 1,005 app users aged 13-44 to associate emotions with five different social media apps: Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. The study revealed that social channels generally correlated with delivering information, news and current events (Twitter and Facebook) left users feeling anxious, isolated, overwhelmed, guilty, depressed and lonely, among other emotions.

Today, people are inundated with political and environmental doom and gloom on a regular basis. In addition, when a friend posts about a traumatic life event on social media, it can cast a dark cloud over what would have otherwise been a typical day (stress is contagious!). The political angst coming from both sides of social media, compounded with tragic life events broadcasted by friends and magnified with comparison stress (comparing one’s life with the ‘perfect’ lives of others), creates a recipe for emotional exhaustion on social media, adding to increasing feelings of social burnout.

Depersonalisation – the degree to which a user feels emotionally detached from social media

Despite some of the negative emotions that are becoming associated with certain social apps, there is no denying that the rise of platforms such as Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook have made users more connected than ever before. These channels evoke feelings of connectedness and collectivity amongst their users, along with a firm sense of belonging within certain online communities. Social media has been found to contribute to psychosocial well-being and sense of community, along with increased facilitation of offline social interactions and facilitation of higher quantity as well as higher quality friendships (Vincent, 2016).

Although people today are digitally more connected than ever before, a study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that young adults with high social media use (SMU) feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU (2017). One of the driving factors causing users to become disconnected from their own social feeds is the rapid influx of branded content that is continually served to consumers. Studies show that simply consuming content passively, without any sort of interaction, can put people in a bad mood in just ten minutes, whereas positive interactions with friends and family ‘can help people feel a greater sense of joy and a stronger sense of community, even if those interactions are purely digital’ (Hall, 2018). Brands trying to capture attention are beginning to replace online social communities of friends, family and colleagues and as a result, consumers are beginning to burn out on social media (Hall, 2018).

What does this mean for brands?

As users begin to feel more ambivalent about their social media usage, as research continues to solidify links between certain social media apps and increasing feelings of anxiety, depression, self-consciousness and isolation and as users begin to feel more disconnected from their news feeds, more and more people are beginning to change their social habits. They are becoming more conscious of the ways in which the apps they use impact their daily lives and their emotions. As a result, they are starting to be more selective with the social media platforms they interact with and are even turning to apps such as Freedom, In Moment, Space, App Detox, Off the Grid and AntiSocial to monitor their screen time, vowing to spend less time on their mobile each day. This shift in social behaviour is making it more difficult for brands to reach their consumers.

Luckily there are things that brands can do to help consumers cope with social burnout. Brands can lead the way in putting an end to promotional ‘clickbait’ content, with the added benefit of demonstrating that their goal is to better consumers’ lives in some way rather than to intrude on their relationships (Hall, 2018).

Engage consumers instead of broadcasting to them

As capricious as consumers are believed to be nowadays, they are generally interested in engaging with brands in meaningful and authentic ways. Developing and maintaining two-way dialogue with consumers is becoming paramount if brands wish to gain advocates. This is especially important with ‘digital-first consumers who thrive on instant gratification’ (Hall, 2018). Consumers will quickly tune out endless promotions, so if brands want their audience to respond to their content and messaging, they must do whatever they can to personalise their interactions and to facilitate two-way communication with their audience.

Provide exceptional customer service

This seems like a simple concept, but the fact of the matter remains that a lot of brands put little to no effort into responding to comments, inquiries and feedback from their audience. One method of providing customer service on social media is through timely and constructive community management. Strong community management involves the building and monitoring of two-way communication between the brand and the consumer, often occurring across multiple communities (blogs, forums and social networks). Community management can have a powerful effect on building trust and loyalty within brand-consumer relationships.

Another method of engaging with consumers is through chat, or messenger, bots. In the simplest terms, ‘a bot is a computer program that automates certain tasks by chatting with users through a conversational interface’ (Hubspot, n.d.). One of the great things about bots is they allow brands to add value to the space in which consumers are already spending their time and they are unique in that they provide a service to consumers. They give the user exactly what they are looking for and nothing more, providing people with a direct line between their problem and a solution. Being able to solve a problems for consumers will help brands stand out amongst the noise on social media.

Be present in the right places

Having an understanding of the purpose and impact of each social media app is integral for brands when deciding which platforms to use. For example:

  • Snapchat is for conversations between close friends, as well as playing with filter and lenses;
  • Twitter is for keeping up with current events or following discussion;
  • YouTube is for learning about new products or topics of interest;
  • Facebook is for keeping up with family and events; and
  • Instagram is for influencer and celebrity content (U.S. Murphy Research Study Commissioned by Snap Inc., 2018).

The Snap Inc. research also indicates that Snapchat and Twitter are the two apps most used while on-the-go, commuting, socialising and shopping, while Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are used more while idle (U.S. Murphy Research Study Commissioned by Snap Inc., 2018).

By recognising how and when users turn to different social apps and by gaining insight into the roles these apps play in consumers’ lives, brands can ensure their ads are relatable and relevant to their audience. This allows users to feel as though brands understand them and have their best interests front-of-mind.

Gain advocates

As social media platforms begin cracking down on the amount of branded content that surfaces organically on feeds, it is crucial that brands gain loyal (and vocal!) advocates. One way to gain more advocates is to team up with influencers who have large, highly engaged audiences. Having passionate supporters that speak highly of a brand and openly share their positive experiences on social media, takes some of the heavy lifting off brands, as the more people talk about the brand, the more likely the ‘content will be tagged as “quality content” and eventually surface higher up in more people’s news feeds’ (Hall, 2018). In addition, consumers are more likely to trust recommendations and messages from advocates instead of marketing messages and sales pitches spread by brands. This makes advocates highly credible and powerfully influential spokespeople, further solidifying the importance of building and nurturing relationships with social media audiences.

What now?

Social media is a powerful tool that has the ability to positively or negatively affect people’s sense of overall well-being. Factors such as ambivalence toward the favourable outcomes of social media usage, emotional exhaustion from the continuous inundation of news and information and depersonalisation of social media from rapid influx of branded-content have contributed to feelings of social burnout amongst users. Brands can help consumers cope with this increasing social fatigue by:

  • maintaining open two-way dialogue with consumers; by providing consumers with exceptional customer service on social media;
  • by ensuring they are present in the right places and by gaining loyal advocates, such as influencers, who will affect audience perception.

As social media habits begin to shift, the two key learnings for brands are to keep social media ‘social’ in nature and to add value to the lives of consumers without intruding on their relationships with friends and family. Brands are now responsible for empowering consumers to build stronger and more meaningful relationships and for using social media as a tool to nurture and facilitate these connections.


Davis, J.L. (2012). Social Media and Experiential Ambivalence. Future Internet, 4, 955-970.

Hall, D. (2018). Are consumers burning out on social media? Marketing Land. Retrieved from:

Han, Bo. (2016). Social Media Burnout: Definition, Measurement Instrument, and Why We Care. Journal of Computer Information Systems 58. 122-130.

Holt, D. (2016). Branding in the Age of Social Media. Harvard Business Review, 94(3), 40-8, 50.

Hubspot. (n.d.). Battle of the Bots. Retrieved from:

Primack, B.A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J.E., et. al. (2017). Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53(1), 1-8.

U.S. Murphy Research Study Commissioned by Snap Inc. (2018). Retrieved from:

Vincent, E.A. (2016). Social Media as an Avenue to Achieving Sense of Belonging Among College Students. Ideas and Research You Can Use: VISTAS 2016, 63. 1-14.


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