Do Social Networks Really Cause Stress?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The effects of technology on our physical and mental health is a familiar topic of conversation in a society where we keep in touch with our families via text, share information about our lives with our friends on Facebook, and catalog the details of our daily lives with photos posted to Instagram. But do we overestimate the effect that the constant use of social networks has on our lives? According to the results of a recent Pew study on whether social media really stresses us out, the answer may be yes.

Claire Cain Miller reports in The New York Times that one of the most popular New Year’s Resolutions shared on Twitter is to occasionally “unplug” from all of the devices, social networks, websites, and apps to which we have 24/7 access. As Miller notes, the popular resolution is in response to the idea that technology and social networks make life more stressful. But a new study conducted by the Pew Research Internet Project and Rutgers University disproves that notion.

The Pew study, called “Social Media and the Cost of Caring,” notes that there has been “considerable commentary about whether internet use in general and social media use in particular are related to higher levels of stress.” Critics of such technologies argue that they take over people’s lives and create time pressures that put users at risk for the negative physical and physiological effects of stress. But in a survey of 1,801 adults, researchers found that the interplay of technology and stress are more complex.

Frequent users of the Internet and social media don’t report higher levels of stress. Higher levels of stress aren’t associated with the frequency of people’s use of social media, or even how many friends they have on social networks. And taking other factors into account, women who use Twitter, email, and mobile phone photo sharing actually report lower levels of stress. However, social media can increase users’ awareness of stressful events in the lives of others, such as unemployment of illness, and specially for women, that awareness is tied to higher levels of stress. The phenomenon has been called the “cost of caring.”

Miller notes that telephones, watches, and televisions before them, social networks were subject to criticism from people who believed they would interrupt users’ lives and pressure them to be more productive. While technologies like social media change our lives, their benefits offset their stressors. The typical Facebook user, for example, can share information with friends and family, is aware of more activities in the lives of those friends and family members, and previous Pew research has shown that this user is likely to have more close friends, have more trust in people, feel more supported, and be more politically involved than a non-social media user.  The study explains:

While some might assume that this typical user of Facebook and other digital technologies experiences peer pressure to participate or keep up, and a fear of missing out, if such pressures exist, our typical user does not feel more stress than what he or she would otherwise have experienced, or the social benefit of using these technologies cancels out those additional costs. He or she is unlikely to feel more stress than those who are not using or are less active on social media.

The only way that Facebook increases stress is by making people more aware of trauma in the lives of their friends, but the study also found that when users are exposed stressful events in the lives of people who aren’t their close friends, they report lower stress levels, perhaps attributable to gratitude for their lives being free of these stressors. Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers and an author on the Pew study, tells The New York Times of our propensity to think that our phones, social networks, and apps have a strong detrimental effect on our mental health, “It’s yet another example of how we overestimate the effect these technologies are having in our lives.”

Especially in the months following the publication of the results of Facebook’s emotional contagion study, it’s become clear that there’s a lot of room for real social science to investigate the effects that social networks really have on our lives. But it’s reassuring that among Pew’s respondents, at least, participation in social networks brought about little psychological ill effect. While Pew notes that awareness of the negative events in people’s lives generates a cost in terms of an increase in stress, people join social networks for the purpose of staying more connected with the friends and acquaintances whom they, on some level, care about. So if the only stressor associated with social network use is an increasing knowledge of what’s going on in our “friends'” lives, we may have less to worry about than social networking critics would have us believe.

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