Regretting a recent tweet or fretting about your Facebook friend count? Relax.
It sometimes feels like social media use increases stress in our lives, but a study conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that's not necessarily the case. Some people, particularly women, can even benefit from being connected—but there is an important caveat. According to the study, increased awareness of other people's problems can promote contagious stress dubbed the "cost of caring," and women pay that price more often than men.
The Pew study surveyed the stress levels of 1,801 adults with the widely used Perceived Stress Scale, which asks questions designed to measure the degree to which people feel their lives are overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable. The team then asked people for details about their social media use, such as which platforms they use, how much time they spend with each one, how many connections they have and how often they comment or share.
“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,” says co-author Keith Hampton at Rutgers University. But the Pew report doesn't support that notion, he says. “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.”
The survey results showed that when all else was equal, many females who use Twitter, email and mobile photo sharing actually reported being less stressed than those who did not. For example, a woman whose typical day included sending or reading 25 emails, using Twitter several times, and sharing 2 photos from her phone scored 21 percent lower on the Perceived Stress Scale than a woman who avoided these technologies.
Men reported less overall stress in their lives: 7 percent lower than women. But they didn't report a similar drop in stress levels tied to their use of social media.
The survey results are consistent with much of the academic literature on social media, says Dhiraj Murthy, a sociologist and author of the book Twitter, who was unaffiliated with the research. Digital technology can function as a social awareness system that keeps us up to date on events in people's lives and allows us to share those updates, from the banal to the profound, he says.
“This awareness and sharing can have positive impacts on our psychosocial lives," says Murthy. "Specifically, if we—in our very busy and increasingly individualized lives—become more social via social media, this could reduce our stress levels, as sharing and more communal behaviors have historically been tied to better mental health.”
Some research has suggested there are negative impacts to social media use, including an August 2013 paper that said Facebook may undermine the well-being of young adults. While the relationship between social media and stress is complex, many such studies focused on heavy users, Murthy says. In general, the common perception of most social media users as gadget-addicted stress cases doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
“There are of course individuals in this camp, but they generally represent the exception rather than the rule,” says Murthy. “Rather, many laugh as they see pictures of new babies in the family on social media. Others share about what they are eating or what movie they just watched. Again, rather than stress-inducing, these forms of social communication can be stress-reducing for some.”
However, the Pew report suggests that social media can make users more aware of negative events in the lives of friends and family. And when users learn about deaths, illness, job loss or other problems among their circle of friends, they in turn feel additional stress they might have otherwise avoided.
“When users find out about really distressing things in their friends’ lives, it can take its toll,” says the Pew Research Center's Lee Rainie.
When it comes to this "cost of caring," women pay a higher price than men, in part because they reported being more aware of painful events among friends and family. According to the Pew survey, an average female Facebook user is aware of 13 to 14 percent more stressful events in the lives of both close social ties and distant acquaintances compared with a woman who doesn't use Facebook. The average male Facebook user is 8 percent more aware of such events among close social ties and just 6 percent more among his acquaintances.
Women more often associated undesirable events in the lives of friends and family with a significant rise in their own stress levels. These included the death of a close connection's spouse, partner or child and a close connection's hospitalization or serious accident. Women also became stressed when acquaintances were accused of a crime or experienced a demotion or pay cut. Men, on the other hand, reported that their own stress levels were raised only when someone close to them was accused of a crime, or when an acquaintance had experienced a pay cut or demotion.
The report revealed that men and women experienced the cost of caring through different social platforms. In addition to Facebook, women became aware of others' stresses via online picture sharing, Pinterest and Twitter. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to become aware via text messages, email or LinkedIn. According to the Pew report, these differences highlight the ways men and women use available technologies to connect with various groups, including family, work colleagues, friends and acquaintances.
No matter the platform, though, the work supports the notion that stress can act like a contagion, and it seems social media can facilitate its spread: “Increased social awareness can of course be double edged,” Murthy says.