Relationship between stress and social media is indirect, Pew study finds

Many studies have looked at the negative effects of social media. Some have found that it silences debate, increases feelings of envy, and undermines well-being by making us feel sad and lonely.

A new Pew Research Center study makes an interesting distinction: social media itself doesn’t make people stressed; the news it carries does. According to Pew, the relationship between stress and social media use is indirect. The study concludes:

    • “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.”

WBUR’s “Here and Now” program highlighted the research and asked Re/Code social media editor Kurt Wagner for his reaction to it.

“It’s not the medium. We have been getting bad news from our friends for years and years and years. It used to come via letter, then it came over the telephone. Now we’re simply receiving that bad news over Twitter or Facebook or even LinkedIn. … It’s not the platform itself that’s stressing us out — it’s in fact the news that we’re learning via these social networks. … Stress and the social networks themselves are actually mutually exclusive.”

Wagner went on to say that he was surprised by the Pew study:

“To me, the act of reading things on social media — reading what others are sharing — is what it’s all about. I don’t really see the difference between the platform and the content. I see those kind of as being the same thing because you really can’t have one without the other.”

We’ve been following a plethora of recent research that explores the connections between media and stress. Moving forward, we’d like to see a different kind of research — that focuses on the connections between media and positive emotions.

See our roundup of other interesting media-related research.

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