I have two great nonhuman loves in my life: chocolate milkshakes and the internet. I’ve been in very intense relationships with both for over 20 years, and though most of the time I can handle my intake, there are times when I clearly go past my limits and end up needing to detox—though I can usually rebound from shake burnout a lot faster than I can from internet burnout. If I drink too many chocolate milkshakes, my stomach gets sick. If I consume too much internet, it feels like my entire being gets sick.
I have experienced internet burnout several times, and it’s always rough. And every single time, I don’t realize how bad it’s gotten until my brain is running on overdrive like a beat-up computer with a permanently operating fan. It’s as if it’s taken in too much information—most of it unnecessary—and can’t quite process it all. I start clicking around aimlessly and refreshing repeatedly out of habit more than anything else, and before I know it, I’ve wasted hours of my time looking at the screen. My eyes hurt, my fingers are sore, and I start to feel disconnected from the rest of the world, which is a bummer, as the internet is usually a comfort to someone like me, who prefers to connect to others from a distance.
I know it my internet usage has caught up with me when I try to write an email—or even a dumb tweet—and the words don’t seem to belong to me. It feels like my voice is missing, and like I’ve already said/read everything there is to say/read. I know I’m at a burnout point when I delete things before I hit send because it suddenly feels as if I’ve forgotten how to communicate honestly and thoughtfully. My best friend is incredibly patient with me; we send epic emails back and forth and have for years, and she understands that when I start a long-overdue letter with “I tried to write you a million times, but nothing came out,” it doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to her; it means I need a break. Burnout is an extreme condition where good intentions don’t always match up with the state of one’s brain.
A point of distinction: Internet burnout is different from internet addiction, which is another very real and horrible thing. Whereas addiction involves a need to be online at all times, burnout is better described as hitting the point where the internet doesn’t seem fun anymore, and when you lose your inspiration and your ability to communicate the way you want to. The obvious solution is to just close the computer and come back to it when you’re ready—maybe never! There were, as legend tells us, times before the internet existed, and people had social lives, shared gossip, and got their work done just fine. But some of us don’t have that choice: Maybe all or part of your academic, professional, or creative work requires you to be online. Or maybe you’re like me, and find it easiest and most pleasurable to do most of your communicating through screens, which, to a point, can be healthy (viva la social anxiety!). If you fall into one of these categories, don’t fret if you hit a wall with your internet use: More often than not all it requires for you to regain your sense of self is a bit of evaluation, followed by a dollop of reinvention. It’s a bit like going through your mental closet and throwing away the stuff that no longer fits. I’ve found it especially helpful to focus on three conveniently rhyming things: extraction, reaction, and distraction.
First things first: You need to pull yourself out of the cycle you’re in, and that requires you to take stock of how you spend your time online. Are you involved in some kind of toxic community—a Tumblr group that constantly infights, or a comment board where things get intense on a regular basis? Any site or social media app that is sapping your energy and attention without much benefit should be left alone. Just walk away, at least for a bit. Give yourself realistic goals: Maybe you can resist signing on to Tumblr for two days, to prove two things to yourself: that you don’t need to sign on as often as you thought, and that anything you’ve missed either wasn’t important or can be easily caught up on upon your return.
Online communities can be lovely, but, because of their insular and generally addictive nature, they all have the potential to feel suffocating. You can start to feel like you can’t possibly miss a second, because you’ll miss a BIG DEAL and then everyone will talk around you, because you missed out and you no longer matter! Listen to a voice of experience: None of this is true. The truth is that if something REALLY MAJOR happens, you’ll probably hear about it without having to sign in somewhere. And though it can feel like everything is heightened on the internet, taking a second to ask yourself, Is this website making my life better right now? is a good way to gauge whether or not to take a break. If looking at Sherlock GIFs for two hours is making you feel lovely, then you do you. But if you feel like you’re clicking around out of obligation, boredom, or fear of missing out, then it’s time to step away from screen.
When I’m in a burnout phase, I find it helpful and important to monitor how I react to things, especially online. I know things are bad bad if everything I’m putting out there has a negative spin on it, or if I’m OUTRAGED on a Tuesday morning by something that the entire internet will forget about by Wednesday afternoon. One sign of burnout is black-and-white thinking; things are either very good or very bad, and there’s no in between. For example: I am a feminist 100 percent, but I’ve had to step away from more than one feminist conversation on Twitter or Tumblr over the years because it seemed like people were screaming at one another more than actually talking to each other, and I couldn’t handle the pressure to “pick a side” on a television show, a book, a writer, etc. It felt IMPORTANT that I do so, and that I then take up arms for that side. I didn’t even consider the possibility of a middle ground. Not a good situation!
Monitoring your reactions can be hard when your brain is exhausted. The easiest way to do it, if you can’t leave the internet entirely, is to go into observer mode and decide to have no public reaction at all. As the writer Gabe Delahaye recently tumbl’d, “We do not have to write a tweet just because we are waiting in line for the bathroom. We can spend entire days in silence if we so choose. You can keep your mouth shut. It is possible.”
Getting away from the internet for a while can be incredibly difficult if you’re used to being on it all day long, or if you have to be on it most of the day for whatever reason. I used to work for a feminist pop culture website, and I spent all weekend every weekend staring at my computer screen—much to the dismay of my loved ones, who never got to see me. I loved the job, but I burned out after two years because I wasn’t living enough of my life offline, and that imbalance was starting to affect all parts of my life, including the quality of my work. I was obsessed with keeping up with every single story out there, every meme and joke and viral video. I just kept shoving information into my brain, most of it instantly forgettable, in an effort to stay “ahead” of things. I was aggregating more than I was creating, and that I was beginning to live in a bubble that consisted of the same voices echoing off one another into infinity (because I, like most people, kept reading the same two or three sites over and over, especially the site I worked for and spent most of my time on), which effectively shrank my world down to a stifling little corner of the internet. I agonized over it, but I eventually quit that job. For the first few months after leaving, I found myself panicking on the weekends, with that horrible feeling that I’d forgotten to do something important. It took me a while to relax, to live in the world, eat pancakes, and sleep on the couch on Saturdays, tiny lovely things that I’d forgotten during my working weekend days.
But that’s what you need to do when you take a break from the internet: reacquaint yourself with the world. Go outside, paint, read, volunteer, sit with your friends and laugh at dumb things, learn to build something, dig through a thrift shop, pet a dog, flip through magazines, take pictures, and do nothing. Give yourself permission to feel bored without needing an instant fix. Let your mind wander. Let your brain recuperate. Drawn inspiration from everything around you. As soon as you’re ready to return to the internet, if you choose to do so, you’ll be able do it with a rested mind, a clear head, and so many new stories and ideas to share. ♦