In January, the Pew Research Center released a report on social media use and stress, and subsequent media coverage has boiled its message down this kind of headline: “Using Facebook and Twitter a lot can actually decrease stress,” to quote the Washington Post.
Wishful thinking. Pew surveyed the associations between people’s self-reported social media use and how stressful they perceive their lives to be, but it did not attempt to determine how Internet and social media use affects stress levels.
The Pew report did find that “women who use Twitter, email and cellphone picture sharing report lower levels of stress.” But we have no idea if there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Perhaps the low-stress women Pew surveyed have more leisure time, which both lowers how stressful they perceive their lives to be, and also gives them more time to send their friends pictures from their smartphones, and to post to Twitter.
Or perhaps these women were feeling the positive effects of communicating with friends. That would be consistent with 150 years of research that has found a person’s well-being is best predicted by the breadth and depth of their social ties.
Knowing this, we can ask how social media can strengthen our real-life relationships. Perhaps sending your sister photos makes you feel closer to her, especially when she comments and sends photos of her own in return. Plenty of research would back up the notion that the love and closeness you feel during this picture exchange really could lower your stress in a measurable way. Many people report a similar positive effect from posting on Facebook. The same goes for reading an article posted to Twitter that makes you feel engaged and curious, or viewing a particular artist’s photos on Instagram that inspires you. These are all instances where social media can foster positive emotions—and positive emotions reduce stress, help us relax, give us energy, and lend our lives meaning and fulfillment.
On the other hand, you might notice that your email or social media use is making you feel bad about yourself. Comparing ourselves to others, while natural, can make us feel envious and unhappy. Does social media use make you feel like you aren’t measuring up? Or does it make you feel isolated? Neither of these feelings will make your life better.
And, as so many people know, constantly checking email or feedback status throughout the day can exacerbate your stress. When researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Kostadin Kushlev regulated how frequently research participants checked their email, for example, those limited to checking their email only three times a day (vs. an average of 15 times) were less tense and less stressed overall.
Social media does have the power to make us miserable and stressed out—or to help us feel love and connection, joy and gratitude, inspiration and curiosity. The key is to understand how these technologies influence our emotional lives, and learn to use them strategically. To reap the benefits of electronic connection, try these three strategies today:
• Check email intentionally, not compulsively. Designate three specific times today that you’ll read and respond to your email, and keep your mail application closed (and alerts off) at all other times.
• Decide on a few places where you will ban your smartphone use. (Consider starting with the dining room table, your bed, and the bathroom.) If you don’t have your phone in the same room, you’ll be a lot less tempted to check it.
• Use social media and email to strengthen your real-life relationships. For example, each morning, send an email telling someone what you really appreciate about them.