Ah, social media! It keeps us connected to friends, occupies our time commuting to and from work, and let’s face it – we wouldn’t be without it. But sometimes, social networking drives us crazy. There is more information flowing into people’s lives now than ever – much of it distressing and challenging, making possibilities for interruptions and distractions greater.
So has social media made our lives easier? It’s definitely a question worth asking considering Australians spend an average of 10 hours and 24 minutes engaging with their internet-connected devices every day.
Yep, we’re just as surprised as you are.
So what are benefits of social media, and does being connected to other people through accessible, always-on technology actually strengthen personal bonds, or cause stress and anxiety? The answer, it seems, is both.
The light side: Stress reduction
According to findings from a study by the Pew Research Center, frequent internet and social media users do not necessarily experience increased stress.
People who perform knowledge work are greatly aided by the expanded access to colleagues and information provided by social media. It’s hard to imagine getting through a work day without tools that provide instant connections with helpful co-workers or immediate answers to difficult questions. In this context, social media’s effect on our working lives has certainly been labour-saving as well as stress-reducing.
Beyond the work tool function, the use of social media to build relationships can also mitigate personal stress. The positive effect emerges most strongly for women. While it was found that there is no relationship between psychological and frequent use of social media for men, a woman who uses Twitter several times daily, who sends or receives 25 emails per day and who shares two digital pictures through a mobile phone per day scores 21% lower on a measure of stress than a woman who does not use these technologies. Women, it seems, not only do a better job of relationship-building in general, but also prove to be more adept than men at using digital media to maintain those connections.
The dark side: Stress increase
There are three major phenomena most directly associated with stress:
– Overload – increased work because of the volume and variety of social media contact
– Invasion – intrusion of work into personal life, caused by personal connections
– Uncertainty – continuous and unpredictable change in social media apps
Dubbed FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), many social media users are particularly at risk of stressing out now that it’s easier than ever to track what friends, frenemies, and foes are doing, and to monitor raises and falls in status on a near-constant basis. This creates social pressures that put people at risk for the negative physical and psychological health effects that can result from stress.
Alternatively, it may be that some of us feel pressure to carefully curate the presentation of our own lives, highlighting the great birthday party but hiding the impending divorce. The pressures associated with managing the sheer volume of all things digital are heavy enough, but they are compounded by the sharing of social media content across the boundary that once separated our work and personal lives.
Dealing with the stress generated by social media connections begins with awareness, with coping strategies falling into two general categories:
- Limitation: Finding ways to switch off, by setting aside time during which media links are disconnected or ignored. A related strategy is to become selective about outreach and responses. Uncontrolled obligation is a well-recognised cause of stress; reducing obligations can be an effective strategy.
- Substitution: Replacing social media with human contact creates the opportunity for real-time connection, richer communication, and sorting through complex issues. Whilst it may not always be stress-free, it does allow for greater emotional control.
Social media can be described as both a blessing and a curse. Our interactions play to our deepest human needs for intellectual and emotional stimulus, and are thus subject overuse, abuse, and even addiction. How mindfully, carefully and judiciously we use social media will determine whether it helps us or harms us. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Cassius, the fault – and the opportunity – lies not in our connections, but in ourselves.