Social media plays a powerful role in creating a more globalized society. We have the ability to communicate with people on the opposite side of the globe, and we can connect with others in seconds. While maintaining friendships with people who don’t live in close proximity was a challenge before, it has become much easier to stay in each other’s lives thanks to Facebook, Instagram, and the likes.
With social media, the world seems smaller and more connected—but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant downsides to be noted. Social media does deserve a lot of praise, but—depending on how we engage with it—it also plays a huge role in elevating our stress levels.
With constant access to social media through smartphones and other portable devices, it is easy to become addicted to scrolling through social media.
In a review of 444 participants’ Facebook habits, researchers found that people had an increased likelihood to become addicted to technology.
Researchers found that participants would switch between different activities on the platform (such as scrolling through the news feed, posting updates, or chatting with friends) as each activity became stressful.
This habit could lead to technology addiction, as users would switch to different stress-inducing activities within the platform as a way to cope with stress—rather than log off and turn to something else. This means more time on the platforms that are causing stress in the first place.
Since the emergence of social media, we have been hyper-connected to the people both physically near us and far away. We are constantly aware of the lives of others (or, at least, the curated lives they present), and are prone to entering a cycle of unfair comparisons and jealousy. This can lead to stress, particularly when we feel the social pressure to present a life online that is deemed as exciting or interesting as the lives of others on social media platforms.
A 2017 review found that passive use of social media can lead to this stress. When we mindlessly scroll through feeds, we can harbor feelings of jealousy and stress.
In these instances, we aren’t using social media as a tool to build connections. We are simply passively absorbing whatever shows up on our screen, isolating ourselves from others. On the other hand, when we actively use social media to engage with others, we can feel less lonely and more connected to others.
However, interestingly enough, researchers have argued that more time spent on social media engaging in these detrimental behaviors isn’t actually the major factor when it comes to social media and stress levels.
According to researchers at Pew Research Center, social media most dramatically affects stress when it comes to shared negative information.
We become more aware of the negative news directly impacting the lives of friends we are connected with on social media channels. Some friends may be inclined to share with their followers about the struggles in their lives—the loss of a job, the death of a family member, or any other major negative life event.
While this heightened awareness of other friends’ current problems may allow us to build more compassion and understanding for others, it can also pull us into a more stressed-out state of mind.
Researchers labelled this the “cost of caring.” The stress levels were found to be particularly higher in women, who generally are more aware of the negative events happening in the lives of people around them.
It is important to note that the higher levels of stress in this research were not directly related to social media. Researchers noted that social media indirectly affected stress levels in this circumstance. It is not social media itself, but using social media as a tool to raise awareness of the negative news from others, that leads to this causation of stress.
It can’t be ignored that social media does have the potential to positively affect the individual. Another review by Pew Research Center found that Facebook users had closer relationships, were more trusting of others, and were better equipped to revive “dormant” relationships.
While our awareness of negative news of others can certainly influence our stress levels, that is only one piece of the puzzle. How we engage with social media—actively or passively—ultimately plays a huge role on how social media and stress intertwine.