Of all the ways we think using social media is stressing us out, only one is real, according to a new study by the Pew Internet Project.
Not the fear of missing out. Not the anxiety of other people’s success.
The awareness of other people’s problems.
To be clear, that’s an indirect source of stress contained in a surprisingly stress-free set of findings. Overall, people who spend hours on social networks are no more stressed out than anyone else, the study found. And in fact, women on social media feel less stress than women who stay off it, which is fascinating. More on that later.
But being aware of other people’s stress adds to our own, and social media —”amazing awareness machines,” as Pew researcher Lee Rainie put it — serve up bigger portions of stress awareness than ever. Especially for us women.
Take Facebook as an example: A male user who comments regularly on other people’s posts is aware of 8 percent more stressful events in the lives of his closest friends than similar men who are not on Facebook. A woman with an average number of Facebook friends (320), meanwhile, is aware of 13 percent more stressful events in the lives of her closest ties and 14 percent more stressful events in the lives of her acquaintances than a woman who’s not on the site.
The more problems we know about, the more stress we feel. Borrowing a term coined in the 1980s, the study’s researchers call this the cost of caring.
And I bet we’ll keep paying it.
“I think overall the tradeoff is positive,” my friend Beth Anderson wrote me via email.
Of all my close Facebook friends, Beth seems among the most comfortable engaging with other people’s toughest situations. Her cost of caring has to be up there.
And yet: “I would rather be slightly more stressed by knowing about someone’s troubles and be in a position to try to help them, than know less and be less able to help,” she wrote.
I’d have said exactly the same thing. And that’s the bigger picture here — the whole way to couch this cost of caring.
You could lose some stress by pulling away from the channels that keep you informed of your friends’ troubles. This study asked about several: divorces, layoffs, illness or death in the family. I’ve seen them all, many times, in my circles.
But you’d lose a lot of other things, too.
“Other research of ours clearly shows that technology use of all kinds – not just social media – helps people manage their lives more efficiently and helps them learn new things and brings other benefits like social support in times of need,” Rainie said.
So it’s a baby-with-the-bathwater thing: Who wants to be less stressed if it also means they’ll be less informed?
The stress is worth it in other ways. You get a lot of good news with the bad — engagements, new jobs, promotions — though you need both to be a good friend.
And if you want to get altruistic about it, the cost of caring is probably also the cost of a better society.
“Awareness is a precondition for empathy,” as researcher Keith Hampton put it. But it goes further than that, to something author Dov Siedman recently told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.
Our whole world is “not just interconnected; it’s interdependent,” Siedman said. “More than ever before, we rise and fall together.” And the right strategy for that kind of world, he said, is not to pull away, but “to deepen and strengthen all these connections.”
These “amazing awareness machines” could be giving us all a boost. Stress, I assume, notwithstanding.
Which brings me back to women.
The study found no difference between the stress levels of men who use social technologies and those who don’t. But a woman who uses Twitter several times per day, sends or receives 25 emails a day and shares two digital photo on her phone per day feels 21 percent less stress than demographically similar women who don’t use these technologies at all.
“I think, without social media, my stress would increase (and has – when I’ve gone on social media fasts),” Beth wrote, “because even if I’m not hearing about other peoples’ negative experiences, I would lose that sense of community and ability to transmit my own needs (even if I’m not really trying to transmit them so much as just vent about x).”
We need each other. Social media didn’t create that need, but they’ve probably done something to help us meet it.
And maybe that should help us relax.