Technology Has Made Life Different,...
Technology Has Made Life Different, but Not Necessarily More Stressful
Among New Year's resolutions shared on Twitter, unplugging digitally came right after losing weight and quitting smoking. People are flocking to digital detoxes, screen-free bedrooms and apps that nudge you off your phone.
It is all in response to the notion that digital technology — like round-the-clock email and friends' envy-inducing Instagram photos — is stressing us out and making us unhealthy.
But a new study by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University found the opposite: Frequent Internet and social media users do not have higher stress levels than those who use technology less often. And for women, using certain digital tools decreases stress.
"The fear of missing out and jealousy of high-living friends with better vacations and happier kids than everybody else turned out to be not true," said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at Pew and an author of the study. The exception was when Face book users saw news of close friends going through stressful events like unemployment or illness.
Then why do we keep hearing that technology is harmful? Fear of technology is nothing new. Telephones, watches and televisions were similarly believed to interrupt people's lives and pressure them to be more productive. In some ways they did, but the benefits offset the stressors. New technology is making our lives different, but not necessarily more stressful than they would have been otherwise.
"It's yet another example of how we overestimate the effect these technologies are having in our lives," said Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers and an author of the study.
Researchers are in the early stages of determining the effects of technology use on our brains. Some say it can increase anxiety and impatience and decrease the ability to focus, learn and remember. Others have found that it increases trust, social support and close relationships. Most likely it does both, depending on how people use it.
The Pew and Rutgers researchers measured stress levels in a representative group of people by using a standard stress scale that ranks people's responses to questions about their lives. Then they measured their frequency of digital technology use. They controlled for demographic factors like marital and education status.
They found no effect on stress levels among technology users over all. And women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps scored 21 percent lower on the stress scale than those who did not.
That could be because sharing life events enhances well-being, social scientists say, and women tend to do it more than men both online and off. Technology seems to provide "a low-demand and easily accessible coping mechanism that is not experienced or taken advantage of by men," the report said.
Social media, particularly Facebook, increased stress in one way: by making people more aware of trauma in the lives of close friends. This effect was strongest for women. The finding bolsters the notion that stress can be contagious, the Pew and Rutgers researchers said.
But when such users of social media were exposed to stressful events in the lives of people who were not close friends, the users reported lower stress levels. Researchers said that was perhaps attributable to gratitude for their own lives being free of these stressors (the joy of missing out, offsetting the fear of missing out.) Others warn that technology is no substitute for human interaction in stressful situations. It is more effective when it is used to amplify healthy social engagement, said Susan Pinker, a developmental psychologist and author of "The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier and Smarter."
For instance, one study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison compared children who talked and instant-messaged with their mothers after a stressful situation. The researchers measured cortisol, known as the stress hormone, and oxytocin, a hormone noticed in positive relationships. The children who talked to their mothers showed decreased stress and increased positive feelings, while those who instant-messaged remained stressed.
"Most of us think it's all about the information," Ms. Pinker said, "but it's probably more about the nonverbal communication: the little pats, the tone of voice that signals in your body that someone is there for you."
An unanswered question is whether the children felt better messaging with their mothers than having no contact at all.Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them, this recent research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.