Social media itself doesn’t increase our stress levels, but our social lives can. We knew that, right? Caring about others can cause us stress when we see them suffering, and that’s one of the things social media does: expose our friends’ challenges.
We can probably extrapolate a few things about our children’s experiences from the Pew Research Center’s survey of 1,801 adults that explored “whether the use of social media, mobile phones and the Internet is associated with higher levels of stress.” It found that…
- “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.”
- The not particularly surprising but confirming fact that “there are circumstances under which the social use of digital technology increases awareness of stressful events in the lives of others.”
So here’s the important takeaway that I’m seeing more and more in research findings, something we all – whether parents, policymakers or society as a whole – need to remember if we want to help our children use social media enrichingly: Most of the negative impacts people attribute to social media are indirectly related to social media and directly related to the people involved in a situation in social media.
For example, stress. Pew found that “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 explains how the use of social media can result in users feeling more stress.”
So back to what I said up there at the top of this post: One of the things social media does is give greater exposure to our friends’ challenges (and just about everything else that’s happening on the planet!). Social stress is a great example of what it is about social media that’s challenging us, which is not the media itself but what it affords: exposure. It might help us to remember that we – especially us adults, who know what it was like not to live life in a fishbowl – are reacting to the exposure of things in social media as much as, if not more than, the things themselves. We’re adjusting to life with an exponentially greater degree of transparency, at peer group and planetary levels, than ever before. That’s not easy. We deserve to have a little patience with ourselves and each other.
The thing or the exposure of the thing or…
Another way to look at this is that there are three factors involved in our reaction to something in social media: the media service itself, the exposure it provides and what it’s exposing. As a society, we’re often reacting to all the exposure of a thing. As individuals, we’re often reacting to the thing itself. Very seldom is what we’re reacting to “social media.”
- “Does digital downtime fix FOMO?” (noting FOMO as a social media-related, not –caused, stressor)
- “To grasp social media’s effects, we need to grasp social media!” about a great piece in The New Yorker that confirms that social media is what we bring to it, the content of our lives, and is therefore extremely individual, as well as situational and contextual
- About an Irish 18-year-old’s personal exploration of “Internet addiction” in a video documentary on YouTube