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Study Suggests Social Media Use May Decrease Stress

FILE - A portrait of the Twitter logo in Ventura, Calif.
FILE - A portrait of the Twitter logo in Ventura, Calif.

A new study suggests that frequent users of social media experience no greater stress in their lives than non-users and some groups may benefit from their use.

The results are contrary to several previous studies that found a link between social media use and negative conditions, such as depression.

“The biggest finding was that there was no relationship whatsoever between the use of these technologies and men’s self-reported levels of stress, but women who used a number of these technologies actually reported lower levels of stress,” said Keith Hampton, associate professor of communications at Rutgers University and the study’s lead author.

The report, “Social Media and the Cost of Caring,” was sponsored by the Pew Research Center Internet Project. Participants’ stress levels were assessed, as well as the frequency of their use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and more traditional digital tools like email or text messaging.

Stress levels

Men who used these tools experienced no greater stress than non-users and female social media users experienced less stress, according to the study.

“It could be that women are gaining positive social support from using these technologies that counteract any stress,” Hampton told VOA. “It could also be that women are better able to balance some of the competing demands they have in life.

"Or it could be that social sharing through these technologies -- just sharing positive and negative events as they happen in a very low-demand way such as email -- may provide women with a way to help manage their stress," he added.

Hampton said the results also suggest that heavy users of social media, notably women, can experience greater stress as they become aware of stressful events in the lives of friends and family.

“People who saw things happening to their friends and family that were unfortunate, such as the loss of a jobs or illness or death, they tended to report more stress as a result of their awareness of other people’s stress,” he said. “This is what’s often been called ‘the cost of caring.’ ”

Importantly, all study participants live in the United States, where the use of social media overall can cause significantly less stress than in countries where liberties are curtained and communication tightly controlled.

Dating back at least to the 1990s, previous studies have pointed to the negative effects of heavy use of digital media such as the Internet.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in 1999 found that "greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.”

That result was echoed in a 2013 study that found the more people used Facebook, the less happy they felt.

Surprised by results

Hampton said he and his fellow researchers had expected similar results when measuring stress and were surprised by the results.

“I think we had expected to initially find that there was a relationship between these technologies and higher levels of stress,” he said. “But counter to the expectation that the more you use these technologies, the more stress you have, it actually seems to be opposite for women -- those who use these technologies a lot actually have lower levels of stress.”

Hampton said that this is only one study and that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations about the positive or negative effects of social media use.

But the results suggest to him that one unexpected benefit of these tools is something he calls “persistent awareness.”

“A lot of social media are increasing our interaction with people by reminding us just how present they are in our lives, as well as keeping us in contact with people we might have lost contact with in the past,” Hampton said.

“I think areas we’re interested in exploring in the future are just how connected people are over time,” he said. “In other words, whether people who would have disappeared from our lives are actually staying more present than they would before.”

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.