Love it or hate it, there's no denying that the Internet, particularly social media, generates plenty of polarizing opinions. Has it made us more connected or more fragmented? More engaged or more apathetic? More or less stressed?
Judging from the endless number of think pieces that explore the panoply of ways the Internet is wearing us down, the general conclusion for the last question seems to be a firm: More stressed.
But when Pew Research Center actually surveyed 1,801 American adults on their stress levels, they found that perhaps we've been too eager to blame the Internet for our frayed nerves. The survey analysis showed that overall, frequent Internet and social-media users do not report higher levels of stress. In fact for women, active use of Twitter, email and sharing cellphone pictures corresponded with a significant decrease in reported stress levels.
While the researchers admit that the findings surprised them -- they were pretty much expecting the survey to confirm the colloquialism that the Internet is one giant stressor -- they speculate there is a reason behind the results. The Internet, and social media in particular, allows us to easily share information and remain connected with the people we care about. (Previous research from Pew found that people who are active on social media are more likely to have more friends, feel support and trust others compared to non-social media users.)
But what about the much-discussed fear of missing out? You know, the damp, cloying envious feeling that often accompanies viewing all the relentlessly positive experiences our friends (and friends of friends) are posting about on social media? The researchers hypothesize that the social benefits of having a network of people literally at our fingertips cancels out any FOMO angst.
Interestingly, while the study found that frequently using the Internet does not translate to an overall uptick in stress levels (and for women, the high use of certain technologies is actually linked to less stress), when bad things happen to people close to us, social media generally makes us more aware of these events, which can lead to an increase in our own stress levels.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women – who report higher levels of stress to begin with and are more aware of stressful events taking place in the lives of people in their network -- are more affected in this regard than men. From the Pew report:
Holding other factors constant, women who were aware that …
Someone close to them experienced the death of a child, partner or spouse scored 14 percent higher on our measure of stress.
Someone close has been hospitalized or experienced a serious accident or injury reported 5 percent higher stress.
An acquaintance had been accused of or arrested for a crime scored 11 percent higher on the stress measure.
An acquaintance experienced a demotion or cut in pay reported 9% higher stress in their own lives.
For the most part, men's stress levels aren't that affected by negative events happening in their social networks. Of the events Pew explored, only two predicted elevated stress levels:
Holding other factors constant, men who were aware that …
Someone close to them had been accused of or arrested for a crime scored 15 percent higher on our measure of stress.
An acquaintance had experienced a demotion or pay cut at work report 12 percent higher stress.
Sounds about right.