It's become a popular cliché to say that "technology makes our lives more stressful." Many people believe that social media, smartphones and the instant access nature of our modern information-driven society are making us all feel interrupted, distracted, frazzled, overwhelmed, and stressed-out. Lots of people are experimenting with “digital Sabbath days”
and the National Day of Unplugging where they deliberately remove themselves from their online activities to stop and smell the roses and interact with people in real life. It seems that many people are uneasy about giving up too much power and influence to their smartphones – they don’t want to be “always” connected because of what they believe online technology is doing to their attention spans and their sense of well-being.
But is it really true? Does technology actually make us more stressed? Or do our levels of stress just depend on how people choose to use the technology in their lives?
A new survey from the Pew Research Center, discussed in the New York Times
, explores whether or not technology is actually making life more harried. The findings are surprising, and optimistic - on the whole, technology can be harmful or helpful, but it appears that for the most part, today's online technologies are making life easier, more efficient, and more organized.
Here are a few of the biggest findings from the Pew study on technology’s role in people’s feelings of stress:
Technology has No Effect on Stress Levels
The Pew Research Center study surveyed a representative sample group of people and asked them a series of questions about their lives using a standard stress scale, and then they asked the people how frequently they used technology.
The study controlled for education levels, marital status, and other demographic factors – basically, if technology makes us more stressed, we would expect to see more frequent technology users scoring higher on their stress levels.
However, the study found no statistically valid effect on stress levels among technology users. In fact, women who use e-mail, Twitter and photo-sharing apps more frequently actually scored 21 percent lower on the stress scale than women who do not use these technologies frequently.
Social Media Stress can be Contagious
However, frequent technology users are not stress free: the study found that social media, and Facebook in particular, tends to make people more aware of sad or traumatic events in the lives of close friends – and this caused a noticeable increase in stress for the survey participants. This finding reinforces the psychological concept – recently explored by other scientists – that stress is contagious
; other people’s stress and sadness can cause us to feel those same emotions, even if we are not directly involved. People tend to absorb the moods of their close relatives and friends, and seeing these feelings reflected on social media does not make us immune to their results.
Technology Does Not Replace “Real” Relationships
Many people worry that they’re spending too much time online, interacting with other people but not really getting the real-life benefits of friendship and in-person connection. Another study mentioned in the New York Times
found that technological communication tools are often most effective at improving well-being when they are used to amplify healthy social engagement. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that children who talked with their mothers after a stressful situation showed decreased stress, while the children who only instant-messaged with their mothers remained at the same level of stress. Even though digital technology is great for exchanging information and conversing and getting to know more about other people, there is something simple-yet-powerful about the experience of in-person nonverbal communication that gives people added reassurance and lets people feel safe and connected.
Ultimately, every new wave of technological innovation brings benefits and disruptions – something is lost as well as gained. People might lament the way we’re always looking at smartphones or checking our notifications on Facebook, and think that life was simpler and more peaceful back before these technologies existed – but the truth is, we all have the option to unplug from online activities whenever we want, and yet many of us choose not to. There’s a reason for that – these online technologies, for the most part – despite the occasional interruptions and frustrations, are making people’s lives better – more connected, better-informed, and (ironically) less stressful.