Understanding Digital Stress

Digital stress is something we all deal with and in many ways it’s unavoidable in our digitally connected society.  When you can develop an understanding around why and how the stress affects your body and brain, it’s much easier to deal with.  Digital stress is kind of like addiction and this statement sums  it up: The way we deal with stress with our technology is like treating alcoholism with a glass of wine.  This sounds crazy so I’ll explain.

Here’s how ‘normal’ social media use is affecting our stress levels.

If you’re like 80% of Americans, your phone is in your palm within 15 minutes of waking every morning.

While many of us can’t quite imagine our lives without our devices, the price we’re paying is high, and what’s worse is we don’t really realize we’re paying it. Technology addiction is sneaky, and new research shows the insidiousness of our habit.

Let’s start with some facts. According to the IDC Facebook research, MOST Americans have their phones with them all but two hours of their waking day (about 79%). 69% of Americans have their phones on them for all but 1 hour of the day. That’s a near-constant connection to our devices.

This study is clearly trying to support the ‘essential’ role our phones play in providing the basic human needs of connectedness and communication, but the data doesn’t exactly support that theory.

The study also shows humans feel most connected with direct messaging apps- specifically with phone calls, text messages, and direct messaging through facebook.

Even though these activities make us feel the most connected, we spend the majority of the time on our phones doing other things:

78% of us check our email incessantly, 70% 0f us scroll facebook (not necessarily direct messaging), and 73% of us are browsing the web.

And when it comes down to it, how often can you say that you’re actively sending or reading a direct message? The majority of our time with our devices is used NOT communicating and connecting. Not directly anyway.

The stress of the scroll is doing more damage than you might think.

According to a new study from the The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, more Americans are adjusting their social media use in response to the stressful political climate, racial inequality, and the Covid-19 pandemic. While 1 in 5 Americans have taken short breaks from social media to detox, 3 in 10 Americans say they’ve increased their social media use in response to the state of the world in 2020. We’re more stressed, and trying to find ways to cope with that stress- and it turns out, our scrolling habit is just making matters worse.

According to Ken Yaeger of the Stress, Trauma, and Resilience program (STAR) at the Wexner Medical Center,

“Stepping away and reconnecting with reality offline is an important step to take for your mental health,” Yeager said. “Being constantly immersed in this stressful environment and being overexposed to contentious or traumatic events can make you feel like the world is a less safe place to be. And because these stressors have persisted over a long period of time, it’s wearing on people’s ability to cope with that stress.”

It’s clear we know we should be spending more time away from our screens, but how much is too much, and how do we cope with the stress? The first step is understanding the cycle- which is very much like an addiction loop.

This professor outlines the problem really clearly:

“While it might seem counter-intuitive, social media users are continuing to use the same platforms that are causing them stress rather than switching off from them, creating a blurring between the stress caused and compulsive use.”

– Professor Monideepa Tarafdar, Professor of Information Systems and Co-Director of the Center for Technological Futures at Lancaster University Management School

Interestingly, instead of deciding to deal with our stress by stopping the interaction with the stressor (in this case the stressor is our social media accounts), we are engaging with them MORE.  We are literally feeling stress, and then re-engaging with the thing that was causing the stress in the first place as a coping mechanism for the stress.

(This would be the equivalent of noticing you are having a drinking problem and instead of quitting or cutting back, deciding to drink more.)

The problem isn’t the stress itself, it’s the lack of awareness around what exactly is causing the stress and making the choice to treat it.

According to co-author professor Sven Laumer, “We found that those users who had a greater social media habit needed less effort to find another aspect of the platforms, and were thus more likely to stay within the SNS (social networking site) rather than switch off when they needed to divert themselves. The stronger the user’s SNS habit, the higher the likelihood they would keep using it as a means of diversion as a coping behavior in response to stressors, and possibly develop addiction to the SNS.”

Basically, the greater your social media use, the greater your stress level. And social media users who are on a specific platform A LOT, are more likely to STAY on the platform when experiencing stress, rather than close it and cope.

Let’s use Facebook as an example. Say you read a stressful click-bait article about the upcoming election and feel anxiety about what’s going to happen next for our country. Studies say, you’re more likely to click away from the article but stay on Facebook to scroll, find a group to interact with, or something else you like to do within the app, which potentially causes more stress, than to put down your phone and breathe or talk it out with a friend or family member.

Basically, we’re treating the problem with the problem, which, (you guessed it) only perpetuates the stress we’re already feeling. (This is one form of technostress).

Professor Monideepa Tarafdar added: “The idea of using the same environment that is causing the stress as means of coping with that stress is novel. It is an interesting phenomenon that seems distinctive to technostress from social media.”

Researchers are hoping the study will inspire social media users to unplug and turn off their phones when experiencing technostress, and in turn, reduce codependency on social networking sites. (Sourced from Addictioncenter.com).

Now that we understand the stress cycle, how exactly do we deal with it?

A University of Pennsylvania study “found that subjects assigned to passively scroll through Facebook (as opposed to those assigned to actively post and comment) subsequently reported lower levels of well-being and more envy, indicating not only that Facebook impacts mental health but also that the way in which we engage with Facebook matters

Since technostress is directly correlated with ‘scrolling’ rather than direct messaging or texting, begin by noticing how you’re interacting with your phone.

How much of your time are you actively commenting, posting, or engaging vs passively scrolling on social media? Make your social media interactions more deliberate, and when you begin to feel stress in your body, remind yourself to put your device down and use a more healthy coping mechanism. Take a walk around the block, talk with a friend or family member, grab your journal, or hug your dog. The key is to break the cycle of soothing the stress with the same app that’s causing the stress, which doesn’t do the trick even if it feels like the easiest option at the time.

Limiting social media time can also help you make more intentional decisions about how you use it.

According to this same study at the University of Pennsylvania, limiting social media use to 30 minutes per day leads to a significant increase in wellbeing. Every smartphone has digital wellbeing timers built-in to their settings, so get in there and set some limits for yourself this week. See how you feel!

Learn how to do a technology detox without ditching your devices in this article here.

Social Media Detox Link