College students are facing burnout in high numbers following the COVID-19 pandemic

By Shiraz Nicpon

Story Highlights

  • A 2017 National College Health Assessment reported that 80% of college students surveyed felt overwhelmed, and 40% felt it was difficult to function. 
  • A Strada survey, done by a Stanford University fellowship program, found 71% of students felt that online classes have negatively impacted their ability to learn.
  • “There was never a distinction between work life and the rest of your life. Your work life injected itself into your house and it never stopped,” said Laumakis on burnout during the pandemic. 

SAN DIEGO – Burnout. A term that first came to be in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger but has been a topic that has been popping up more frequently in discussions around mental health. The dialogue around mental health has been an issue that has continued to be more open and expansive within the past couple of years. 

In the age of social media, the well-being of young people has been a topic of conversation within social and academic circles. This conversation has been a recurring one since the COVID-19 pandemic when the mental health of so many across the globe declined. 

Situations changed for everyone, but a lot shifted for college students in the U.S. Burnout is a feeling that many students across college campuses in the U.S. have reported feeling.  

College life is wearing students down

A National College Health Assessment study found that “80% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed, and 40% reported finding it difficult to function” in 2017. These findings align with symptoms of burnout. 

Stress is a common feeling among college students, but burnout is different. For instance, a student may feel stress while preparing for a test or project but the feeling of stress and pressure will eventually calm down. Burnout is when the stress and pressure never seem to go away and it affects a person’s ability to function. This build-up can lead to students withdrawing from school and extracurricular activities and their physical and mental health. 

Kailani Remigio, a third-year college student at SDSU, said during the pandemic he was working out a lot and bettering himself mentally but lacked the motivation to focus on school. The mental health of a lot of students declined and affected school performance. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a hard time,” Remigio said. “School was tough too because I didn’t have football around.” 

College students weren’t able to participate in clubs, sports, events and other school activities because of the pandemic. These were key outlets for students like Remigio to balance their school and social life.

EduMed, an organization that provides medical studies from universities and research programs, said leaving home for the first time, adjusting to increased school work and expectations, missing friends from home, needing to meet new people and sometimes questioning their belonging at their university, all can impact college student stress loads. Therefore, all of these things can weigh down on students and eventually lead to burnout.

Mark Laumakis, a Ph.D. lecturer in SDSU’s Department of Psychology, discussed social media’s impact on students. 

Laumakis said that the academic performance of his students differed a whole letter grade depending on if his students attended lectures or not. Students who feel symptoms of burnout and struggle to go to class can have major grade changes.  

These long-term effects can completely shift the plans college students have for themselves.

My workspace while working on assignments during midterms on SDSU’s main campus. Photo by Shiraz Nicpon 

Yet, school isn’t the only stressor that college students face that can factor into their burnout. The vast and complex world of social media impacts the mental health of college students too. 

The different roots of social media burnout

Nowadays, social media has allowed people to easily access information on the lives of other people. Comparing yourself socially can impact job burnout, according to a study done by Ruixia Han, Jian Xu, Yan Ge and Yulin Qin for Frontiers in Public Health. The study also says social media can increase a person’s self-evaluation of their appearance, wealth, job, and more. The study confirmed its hypothesis that media today has a big impact on people’s lives and work.

According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, about 84% of young adults, specifically from the ages of 18 to 29, say they frequent social media sites. Morning Consult, a company that conducts survey research, ran a study and found that 54% of Gen Zers said they spent about four hours a day on social media. Social media serves a different purpose for each person. But it’s important to highlight that viewing unrealistic expectations or lifestyles on social media constantly can impact a person’s mental health. This high use of social media can potentially lead to poorer physical and mental health for Gen Z. 

My own screen time on my phone, four hours and 24 minutes, was captured on a Wednesday. Photo by Shiraz Nicpon.

According to a Computers in Human Behavior Report done by Nina Harren, Vera Walburg and Henri Chabrol, social media burnout and problematic Instagram use were higher in students compared to non-students. The report stated that social media burnout is seen as an overload of technology which makes younger people who have grown up with technology more vulnerable to developing social media burnout. The report also found that social media can make people feel like their personal life is being interfered with and high usage of social media could cause irritation, stress and feelings of being overwhelmed and drained. 

For instance, in an American Psychological Association study, Gen Z stress levels have progressively risen throughout the years.

Additionally, a study done by scholars at San Diego State University and Flordia State University found that 48% of teens who had five or more hours of screentime per day felt at least one suicide-related feeling, like thinking, planning or attempting suicide. 

Another point that is discussed later on is COVID-19-related burnout. An Ohio State University survey found that student burnout increased from 40% in 2020 to 71% in 2021.

“If you’re overdoing that stuff, that could be a risk factor for some of those bad outcomes,” Laumakis said.  

Laumakis said that there is a lot of correlational data on social media and depression but not necessarily causational data on the topic. Laumakis isn’t convinced that social media is the only factor in making some students feel anxious or depressed and that overusing social media could be a risk factor for mental health issues. He added that there are a lot of other outcomes that affect depression and anxiety. 

In a conversation with Dr. Devon Berkheiser, a licensed clinical psychologist at SDSU, she mentioned that many students don’t look inward to see how social media can affect their mental health. The negative effects that social media has can sneak up on people as they scroll through the apps. 

“But as we’re talking about maybe, ‘I feel terrible about my body’, like what messages have you gotten about your body and how it should look? ‘Well, I see these people on social media,’” said Dr. Berkheiser.  

Social media can affect how young, impactful college students see themselves. An American Psychological Association study found that young adults that decreased their social media use by 50% for three weeks had an improvement in how they felt about their body image and looks compared to their peers who didn’t decrease their time on social media. Another study done by the Florida House Experience, a healthcare institution, found that 87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to images they see in media.

Janvi Ishwar, a sophomore at SDSU, said that social media sometimes changes how she sees herself. She said depending on her mood, social media can impact how she feels.

“If I’m feeling bad one day, sometimes looking at Instagram or TikTok makes me feel worse. I feel like I’m not doing enough,” Ishwar said. 

Burnout is not exclusive to social media but is also prevalent in other aspects of the lives of college students. 

Dealing with burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic

A 2020 survey conducted by two University of California, Davis, students, found that students’ biggest challenge of the fall semester was stress, anxiety and loneliness at 44%. These feelings can lead to a lack of drive to complete work for class.

Ishwar said she struggled during the pandemic, especially when it came to academics. 

“It was so hard to focus in class. Like I was always on my phone during Zoom, or I would just let the video play in the background. Now that we’re in-person I feel more motivated to do things,” Ishwar said.  

Laumakis said that, during the pandemic, he saw a lot of disengagement, distractions from learning and a lack of connection due to the virtual classes.  

A Strada Education Foundation survey showed that 71% of college students said online classes have negatively impacted their ability to learn. Laumakis said he pushed for his classes to be in-person once everything was safe because of similar reasons this survey found. 

“The biggest struggle was to get students to sort of lean forward and look interested and look curious about things,” said Laumakis. “It was just going through the motions, and I understand that completely because I sorta felt that way when I approached my work.” 

Everyone during the pandemic found it hard to get work done, even college faculty. Now that classes are in-person, for the most part, students are slowly adjusting to in-person lectures, meeting people and growing as adults.  

Berkheiser said that the COVID-19 pandemic further impacted issues that students might have been facing before the pandemic. Berkheiser added that the lives of students changed dramatically and the pandemic made their crises worse.  

“We are here at a university that’s our setting so a lot of students will call with academic concerns and often there are other things that are contributing to those academic concerns, so they don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Berkheiser. “Maybe someone’s really struggling with anxiety and that’s getting in their way with their ability to focus in class, or they experience the death of a loved one and that’s getting in their way in their ability to show up and be the best student that they can be.” 

The key point to highlight is that during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of things changed for students. It was different for everyone because each person handles their responsibilities differently. Each student has their struggle, and for many students, the pandemic was not a positive college experience.   

Berkheiser talked about how students felt it was hard going back to school after being isolated for so long. She said that students had issues that weren’t being handled like they were when classes were online.

But Berkheiser added that some students were excited to go back to in-person classes. 

“I’m glad all my classes have been in-person,” Ishwar said. “I get to have a normal college experience.”