Article written by Maria Fonseca and Paula Newton
Recently there have been concerns raised about the potential damage that social media can do to stress levels for people. Studies have been carried out to figure out if social media use can create higher levels of stress. A recent one was done by the Pew Research Center in the USA, that revealed very interesting and unexpected: Actually social media doesn’t increase stress, but something else: caring and concern for other people’s problems. The study aimed to review the impact that social media, mobile phones and the internet have on personal stress by carrying out a survey with 1,801 adults using the Perceived Stress Scale. The scale looks at the extent to which people find their lives to be overloaded. It is used to understand the risk of factors related to stress such as anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease.
The Cost Of Caring Or The Bliss Of Sharing ?
While some factors relating to stress are well known such as moving house, facing unemployment and not having people to confide in, the stress attributable to digital technology is less well understood. The study had some interesting findings in this regard. The first was that internet and social media users do not have higher levels of stress. It was found in fact that the opposite is true for some technologies. However, in some situations social media can create stress, especially for women. The authors of the study called this “the cost of caring”. People become stressed due to their higher awareness about stressful situations that others are facing, and it is argued that stress is contagious in this way. The authors say of this:
“The relationship between stress and social media is indirect. It is the social uses of digital technologies, and the way they increase awareness of distressing events in others’ lives that explains how the use of social media can result in users feeling more stress.”
The problem is that social media does not just limit itself to telling us about the good things that are going on in people’s lives. People also share regarding the negative aspects of their life, such as if they lose their job, split with a partner, or become terminally ill. These undesirable events can make some other people feel more stressed. It was found that women were more likely to report stress as a general rule, but women using digital technologies for communication had lower stress than those not using social media. Women were found to have a higher level of awareness about the stressful events of others, and social media is related to this awareness. This awareness in itself can cause stress for some, and more for women than for men. Writing for Geek Wire, Monica Guzman (2015) explains that when males comment regularly on other people’s posts they are aware of eight per cent more stressful events in the lives of others (closest friends) compared with those men that do not use Facebook. However, women were found to have awareness of 13 per cent more stressful events in the lives of their closest friends. This was found for some to be more stressful due to their caring. It is thought that pulling away from these social media channels can help rectify this. Of course, the problem with that is that people who do that lose all of the benefits that come with social media, such as being able to keep in touch with friends and family that are far away and being able to share in the joy of positive events in people’s lives. After all, research has also shown that social media and other technologies are also good at helping people to organise and manage their lives in a more efficient manner and learn new things. When they have stressful events in their own lives they are likely to receive social support as a result. In fact, the study found that a woman that makes use of Twitter various times during the day, is in contact using email 25 times a day and shares photos twice a day has 21 per cent less stress than women who do not use these technologies.
Rewiring our brains for increased empathy
Overall the best answer to this situation is for people to figure out individually what works for them. For some people that may mean coming off social media websites, while for others it might mean accepting a bit more stress for the sake of the benefits received by staying on these websites. That “stress” can though be seen yet through a different perspective.
Danah Boyd, a researcher that has studied how social media is affecting teenagers and young adults extensively as alerted us for the fact that through social media “brains are being rewired—any shift in stimuli results in a rewiring.” Due to Social Media, we are nowadays constantly and increasingly more exposed to the joys and problems of others, and that is definitely rewiring our brains to increased social awareness and, according to the Pew Study, feelings of caring. The “cost of caring” can therefore be interpreted as empathy, as the problems of others cannot be ignored at all as well as our own problems. The cost of caring could thus be looked at through a different perspective, such as the bliss of caring. Social media is nothing else but a way to be and become more social and that comes to the encounter of a new type of population with new types of values. As Jeremy Rifkin writes, the author of the renowned book The Empathic Civilization:
“We have come to discover what we suspect is a new political mindset emerging among a younger generation of political leaders socialized on Internet communications. Their politics are less about right versus left and more about centralized and authoritarian versus distributed and collaborative.”
It seems that collaborating towards the caring of each other can thus be fostered through social media, as long as one knows how to handle stress. To rewire the brain in such a way, through social media, could therefore be a reason to rejoice.
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.