There has been considerable commentary from critics regarding Internet use and specifically relating higher levels of stress to social media use. However, a study on “the cost of caring,” conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, has found the opposite is true.

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The relationship between stress and social media use is indirect. It is the social uses of digital technologies, and the way they increase awareness of distressing events in others’ lives, that can result in users feeling more stress.

Pew is a Washington DC-based nonpartisan think tank. The aim of their research was to explore whether the use of social media, mobile phones and the Internet is associated with higher levels of stress.

The study consisted of a phone survey in English and Spanish and included 2,013 adults. The participants were asked about the extent to which they feel stress in their lives, using an established scale of stress called the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). The scale is based on answers to 10 questions that assess whether a person feels that their life is overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable.

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.

“Everything’s all fine and dandy” until something unfortunate happens in the lives of people you care about, says Keith Hampton, a professor of information at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

There are various factors that are known to make people feel more stress, such as the uncertainty of employment and the absence of a friend or partner with whom to confide.

Previous studies have also found that awareness of stressful events in the lives of others is a major contributor to people’s assessment of their own stress levels.

An analysis of survey responses produced two significant 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
  • 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 has been called “the cost of caring.”

This finding about “the cost of caring,” the report says, adds to the evidence that stress is contagious.

The study determined that women appear to be connected more deeply online than men, and that women find that knowing their friends are in trouble is stressful. However, contrary to previous reports, simply using social media did not lead to more stress.

“People who use social media, especially heavy users, were not more stressed,” affirms Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet research.

There was no statistical difference in stress levels between men who use social media, mobile phones or the Internet and men who do not use these technologies.

However, Twitter use, email use and photo sharing via mobile phones were linked to less stress among women when compared with women who do not use these technologies.

“A woman 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% lower on our stress measure than a woman who does not use these technologies,” the authors note.

There was one exception to this rule, when bad things happened to people in the social circles of the women.

Hampton comments:

It’s a well-known social phenomenon, when you’re aware of bad things happening in other people’s lives, particularly friends and family, that’s a stressor for you, too.”

Rainie adds that social media “is a reminding machine. It reminds you that so-and-so lost a child, or that Bob is out of work right now and that’s why he has more time.”

Twenty years ago, sharing news meant picking up the phone, writing a letter or sitting down to talk. This research highlights the change in human interaction and the on-going learning curve about just how it affects us.

Social media allows us to send a message or invite to all our friends instantly online and with the advent of apps on smart phones, people exist in an environment of persistent contact and pervasive awareness.

“Some argue that these little sips of connection don’t add up to anything,” Hampton states. “But we’re finding it does, it’s a big gulp of awareness.”

This study suggests that the information transferred through social media translates into awareness of all kinds of extra things, including an awareness of undesirable events in the lives of family, friends and acquaintances. Whether as a result of social media, or more traditional forms of interaction, awareness of undesirable events in others’ lives generates increasing psychological stress, and with it, higher risk for the physical and psychological problems that often accompany stress.

Opting out of social media is not necessarily considered a better option. Research shows that people who do not have an online presence tend to be the most disconnected Americans. “They have fewer close relationships, they have less diverse relationships, they are less connected to their communities,” Hampton concludes.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that examines why couples post “lovey-dovey” updates on Facebook and suggests that some brag about their relationships in order to mitigate fears of rejection.