STUDY: Does Social Media Use Cause Stress?

By David Cohen Comment

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Does social media cause or accelerate stress? Pew Research Center sought to answer that question with its latest study, which turned up mixed results: Frequent Internet and social media users do not exhibit higher stress levels, but that changes under certain circumstances when they become aware of stressful events in the lives of family and friends.

Pew said in introducing its report:

For generations, commentators have worried about the impact of technology on people’s stress. Trains and industrial machinery were seen as noisy disruptors of pastoral village life that put people on edge. Telephones interrupted quiet times in homes. Watches and clocks added to the dehumanizing time pressures on factory workers to be productive. Radio and television were organized around the advertising that enabled modern consumer culture and heightened people’s status anxieties.

Inevitably, the critics have shifted their focus onto digital technology. There has been considerable commentary about whether Internet use in general and social media use in particular are related to higher levels of stress. Such analysts often suggest that it is the heaviest users of these technologies that are most at risk. Critics fear that these technologies take over people’s lives, creating time pressures that put people at risk for the negative physical and psychological health effects that can result from stress.

Elaborating on its two major findings, Pew wrote:

Overall, frequent Internet and social media users do not have higher levels of stress. In fact, for women, the opposite is true for at least some digital technologies. Holding other factors constant, women who use Twitter, email and cell-phone picture sharing report lower levels of stress.

At the same time, the data show that there are circumstances under which the social use of digital technology increases awareness of stressful events in the lives of others. Especially for women, this greater awareness is tied to higher levels of stress, and it has been called “the cost of caring.” Stress is not associated with the frequency of people’s technology use, or even how many friends users have on social media platforms. But there is one way that people’s use of digital technology can be linked to stress: Those users who feel more stress are those whose use of digital tech is tied to higher levels of awareness of stressful events in others’ lives. This finding about “the cost of caring” adds to the evidence that stress is contagious.

Facebook was a major focus in Pew’s report — not surprising, as it is the largest social network. Pew wrote:

Facebook was the one technology that for both men and women provides higher levels of awareness of stressful events taking place in the lives of both close and more distant acquaintances. Other technologies are more specialized: Some provide awareness of major events in the lives of close relationships, while others provide an awareness of activities in the lives of acquaintances who are less socially close. It is not a new finding that people tend to use different technologies to communicate with social ties of different strengths. For example, other studies have found that cell phones and instant messaging are more likely to be used with family and close friends. To add to this complexity, we found that men and women used digital technologies differently, and this is important for understanding how people are exposed to information about stressful events in others’ lives.

Among Facebook users:

  • A woman with an average-size network of Facebook friends is aware of 13 percent more stressful events in the lives of her closest social ties, compared with an equivalent woman who does not use Facebook. And that average woman user is aware of 14 percent more stressful events in the lives of her more-distant acquaintances.
  • A typical male Facebook user who comments regularly on others’ posts is aware of 8 percent more stressful events amongst his closest social ties. A man with an average-size network of Facebook friends is aware of 6 percent more major events in the lives of his acquaintances, compared with an equivalent male who does not use Facebook.

For women, awareness about stressful events in others’ lives was also likely to be related to sharing pictures online and use of Pinterest and Twitter. For men, awareness was particularly likely to be related to text messaging on their cell phone, email and LinkedIn. These patterns are a result of both the tendency for men and women to use different technologies, and for them to use different technologies to keep in touch with different types of people — friends, family, workmates and acquaintances.

While Facebook may inadvertently be a source of stress for some of its users, the opposite was true of Instagram, its photo- and video-sharing network. Pew wrote:

Use of Instagram was the only technology use that we found to predict lower levels of awareness, and only for women. This might be the case because Instagram is used differently than some other kinds of social media. Scholars have found that many people make cell-phone calls and exchange text messages predominantly with their closest ties. They have argued that this is “tele-cocooning,” and they believe that people’s use of mobile phones leads to contact with more intimate relations at the expense of weaker and more diverse social ties. Instagram use may be tied to a similar pattern. Those who use Instagram might reduce their focus on the lives of their social ties that are not considered especially close. Controlling for other factors, a female user of Instagram who uses the platform a few times per day is, on average, aware of 62 percent fewer major events in the lives of their extended network than someone who does not use Instagram at all.

Other findings in the Pew study included:

  • Compared with a woman who does not use these technologies, a women who uses Twitter several times per day, sends or receives 25 emails per day and shares two digital pictures through her mobile phone per day scores 21 percent lower on our stress measure than a woman who does not use these technologies at all.
  • Compared with a woman who does not use Pinterest, a woman who visits Pinterest 18 days per month (average for a female Pinterest user) is typically aware of 8 percent more major life events from the 12 events we studied amongst her closest social ties.
  • Compared with a man who does not use Pinterest, a man who used Pinterest at a similar rate (18 days per month) would tend to be aware of 29 percent more major life events amongst their closest ties.
  • Males who send text messages to four different people through their mobile phones on an average day (the average for a male cellphone user) tend to be aware of 16 percent more events amongst those who are close to them.
  • A male user of LinkedIn visits the site 15 times per month and is typically aware of 14 percent more events in the lives of their closest social ties.
  • A male Facebook user who comments on other Facebook users’ content 19 times per month is on average aware of 8 percent more events in the lives of their closest friends and family.
  • A woman who shares four photos online per week tends to be aware of 7 percent additional major events in the lives of those who are close to her.
  • A female Facebook user with 320 Facebook friends (the average for women in our sample) is on average aware of 13 percent more events in the lives of her closest social ties.
  • 57 percent of adults said they know someone who started a new job in the past 12 months.
  • 56 percent know someone who moved or changed homes.
  • 54 percent know someone who became pregnant, gave birth or adopted a child.
  • 50 percent knew someone who had been hospitalized or experienced a serious accident or injury.
  • 50 percent knew someone who became engaged or married.
  • 42 percent knew someone who was fired or laid off.
  • 36 percent knew someone who experienced the death of a child, partner or spouse.
  • 36 percent knew someone who had a child move out of the house or move back into the house.
  • 31 percent knew someone who went through a marital separation or divorce.
  • 26 percent knew someone who experienced a demotion or pay cut at work.
  • 22 percent knew someone who was accused of or arrested for a crime.
  • 22 percent knew someone who was the victim of a robbery or physical assault.
  • The average adult knew people who experienced five of the 12 events listed above.

Rutgers University scholar Keith Hampton, a main author of the report, said in a release introducing its findings:

There is a complex relationship between social media use and stress. There is no evidence in our data that social media users feel more stress than people who use digital technologies less or not at all. There is a great deal of speculation that social media users feel extra pressure to participate and keep up on social media to avoid the “fear of missing out” in activities that others share, and that they feel anxious after viewing the successful images that friends project on Facebook. But it turns out social media users don’t feel any more stress in everyday life than non-users or those who only lightly use digital technologies. However, for some, the use of these technologies can be indirectly related to stress. The social aspect of these technologies makes people more aware of stressful events in other’s lives. Learning about and being reminded of undesirable events in other people’s lives makes people feel more stress themselves. This finding about the cost of caring adds to the evidence that stress can be contagious.

Pew Research Center director of Internet, science and technology research Lee Rainie added:

For many, the new social reality is that people are pervasively and persistently connected through social media. In the most common circumstances, as they use social media to learn about friends’ lives and share information about their own lives, this new social environment has its benefits, such as higher levels of social support and social capital, and doesn’t seem to add to stress. But when users find out about really distressing things in their friends’ lives, it can take its toll.

Readers: What impact, if any, do you think your social media use has on your stress level?

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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