For generations, analysts 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 de-humanizing 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.
As expected, 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.
This research explores whether the use of social media, mobile phones and the internet is associated with higher levels of stress. In a Pew Research Center survey of 1,801 adults, the center asked participants about the extent to which they felt their lives were stressful, using an established scale of stress called the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS).
This scale is based on people’s answers to 10 questions that assess whether they feel that their life is overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Perceived stress, as measured through the PSS, can be viewed as an assessment of the risk that people face for psychological disorders related to stress, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and susceptibility to infectious diseases.
There are a number of well-known factors that tend to make people feel more stress, including things like the economic uncertainty of unemployment, and the absence of a spouse or a partner with whom to confide.
The survey analysis produced two major findings that illustrate the complex interplay of digital technology and stress:
- 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 cellphone picture sharing report lower levels of stress.
- At the same time, the data show 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.
On the other hand, there is the common exception to this relatively positive situation. Sometimes, a social media user’s awareness of events in others’ lives includes knowledge about undesirable events, a friend or family member getting fired or losing someone close to them. Learning of such events in the life of a friend or family member can result in higher feelings of stress.
Gender differences are a major part of this story. Women and men have different levels of stress; their use of digital technologies varies; and the impact of their technology use is different.
The broad patterns are:
- Overall, women tend to report more stress than men. But, those women who use a number of digital technologies to communicate with others tend to report less stress than women who do not use these technologies.
- Women are more aware of stressful events in the lives of their closest friends and family.
- Social media use is related to even higher levels of awareness of the stressful events that unfold in the lives of people they know.
- Awareness of stressful events in others’ lives is a significant contributor to people’s own stress. It is the only factor that we found that is common to both social media use and psychological stress. The number of undesirable events associated with stress is greater for women than for men.