activism Black Lives Matter Mental Health Racism Social Media Youth Interests

The Hidden Cost of Caring in the Social Media Age

Social media has ignited political movements across the globe, but it can also create more downsides than upsides for some

By Nicola De-Ats

There has never been an easier time to be aware of the social and political issues happening around us. But with every social media scrolling session being accompanied by notifications of another death, another war, another scandal, is this increased awareness really resulting in the social change we all desire?

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Social media is a crucial  part of this increased awareness of political and social issues. It gives a voice to those who have been silenced for far too long, can help to place accountability on the powerful, and highlights issues that have previously been ignored by many. This was seen most prominently in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a moment that sparked an international conversation around racism, with many learning about the troubling history of the UK for the first time (conveniently skipped over in most history classes) among other things.

Without social media, his death may have gone tragically unknown, while the man who committed this act could have in turn been held less accountable. On top of this, the beneficial and progressive conversations surrounding racism probably would not have happened to the same extent. This knowledge was packed into infographics, easily read and shared with millions on social media, but how many truly engaged with it? 

Is this gained awareness actually translating to the engagement necessary to create the equal and fair society we all are calling for on our Instagram stories?  In a time where every injustice can be shared in an instance to millions, this is not without its costs. With tragedy, death and injustice perforating our day to day lives like never before thanks to social media, many of us may be unknowingly experiencing compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of continuously helping others, while not taking time to care for yourself. This can actually lead to a diminished ability to empathise or feel compassion for others. Exposure to stressful or traumatic events can manifest itself in stress symptoms, as if those things had literally happened to us. Empathy means we can feel the pain of others, feel the sadness and the heartbreak as if it was our own.

Whilst this is a wonderful tool, and is fundamental to building relationships and a necessary requirement to living in society, it can be draining. It is also limited. Therefore, repeated exposure to the negative and traumatic experiences of others can lead to this compassion fatigue, with individuals experiencing symptoms such as feeling disconnected, hopeless or powerless when hearing of others’ suffering, physically exhausted and experiencing the desire to avoid the very person/ people you want to help.  

Given social media’s ability to highlight injustice and traumatic events on an international level, it is likely leaving many of us experiencing mild forms of compassion fatigue, resulting in many individuals struggling to engage with these issues deeply. This desire to help but inability to engage can also leave many experiencing inner conflict and feelings of guilt. Without the awareness of the existence of compassion fatigue, this conflict between caring so much but finding yourself skipping through stories about the latest crisis or calls to donate can cause you to question yourself, your morals and your values, believing maybe you aren’t as ‘kind’ as you first thought. This may be particularly prevalent in our generation, a generation that prides itself on its political and social awareness and desire for change.

In turn, this undermines the overall success of activist movements, which are fundamentally the result of many individuals taking action. Therefore, whilst social media may seem to be progressing activist movements by starting important conversations and increasing awareness, it may be detrimental to their progress if these conversations and awareness can’t be translated into actions. 

Additionally, social media also creates a culture of pressure, in which people encourage others to engage and repost about the issue at hand. Whilst this can be beneficial, it can also encourage superficial engagement. Caring has become a commodity, with everyone being called to publicly display their compassion in the form of a reposted Instagram photo or infographic, and businesses capitalising on this ability to show ‘’compassion’’ in a quick and easy social media post. But compassion and activism aren’t and shouldn’t be a one size fits all – and ‘cancelling’ people if they haven’t spoken out publicly can give rise to performative activism which isn’t conducive to any real social change.

This pressure to engage with every issue is particularly damning when combined with the existence of compassion fatigue that social media also creates. Individuals are being pressured to engage with every issue, but compassion fatigue inhibits this, giving rise to surface-level engagement rather than focused and committed activism needed for social change.

How do we stay aware without becoming overwhelmed? How can we use social media in a way that fosters awareness that leads to productive action? Logging off is an answer, but it may not be the best. Social media highlights reality and unfortunately, reality is complicated and problematic and wishing it wasn’t, won’t change this. And by logging off we miss out on the benefits it can bring to social progress, such as starting conversations, spreading information and increasing awareness, which is often the thing those experiencing compassion fatigue want the most.

As there will always be suffering and calls for social change, compassion fatigue still has the potential to exist- with or without social media. Therefore, it may be more productive to change the way we use social media, using it as a vital tool for activism rather than ‘’scrapping it’’ altogether.

We need to change the culture of social media and stop expecting everyone to comment and engage in every issue. It is unrealistic and may be detrimental to real progress. Instead, we should encourage deep engagement with an issue, rather than superficial engagement across many issues. Acknowledgement that no one individual can simultaneously stop all war, alleviate all poverty and cure world hunger is needed and know that you alone don’t have to solve every issue.

Awareness of compassion fatigue is important- if not only to help soothe the feelings of guilt and conflict in the individuals experiencing it. This also enables people to be aware when they start to experience compassion fatigue and put boundaries in place to limit the amount of time they spend on social media so they can recharge – ultimately leading to a more productive and sustainable form of activism.

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