The Science Behind Social Media and Stress

Is social media helping or hurting you in your day-to-day life?

Of all the tech trends that have shaped the world in recent years, few have had a larger impact than social media. Social media has allowed countless people to reconnect with old friends and stay in touch with family members. It even played a significant role in the Arab Spring and other political and social movements.

Marketers have been especially enthusiastic about social media’s influence, which allows them to connect with customers around the world in a more personal way than ever. Countless businesses big and small have managed to form meaningful relationships through the power of Facebook and other social platforms.

All of this sounds pretty good, but as with almost everything in life, there is a dark side to social media — and one of the more pernicious ways in which this takes place is how social media can affect our stress levels. If you’re not careful, excessive use of social media can actually contribute to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions.

How Does Social Media Create Stress?

Naturally, the first concern on many social media users’ minds would be how using Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter could cause them to become more stressed out in the first place. Surprisingly, there are many factors that contribute to this problem — and almost all of them deal with the “social” nature of these sites.

According to PsychCentral, one of the chief contributors to social media-related stress is our tendency to compare ourselves to others. We’ve all heard about how people don’t always portray their “real life” on social media, and this can lead to some serious psychological concerns that arise when we view these posts.

In a nutshell, receiving constant updates from friends or family showcasing how “perfect” their life is can cause feelings of inadequacy. This in turn can cause you to become anxious, stressed or even depressed as you worry that your life isn’t as exciting or that you haven’t accomplished as much as your peers.

This can subsequently create pressure to find ways to present an idealized version of your own life that doesn’t reflect reality. Indeed, for some people, trying to improve your online image can become an all-consuming process. Researchers note that this is especially true among teens and young adults looking for peer acceptance, sometimes creating situations where “teenage girls sort through hundreds of photos, agonizing over which ones to post online.”

In a reversal of the stress that can be caused by idealized versions of social media life, exposure to stressful news and events through social media can also increase your personal feelings of anxiety.

A serious event in the life of a close friend or family member (such as the death of a loved one, an arrest, a job loss or a hospitalization) is often posted on social media for everyone to see. Add to that the political angst that comes from both sides of the aisle on social media, and it’s plain to see that there is a lot of negativity that comes through on social media as well.

To much of this negative content can increase your own feelings of anxiety because stress and other emotions are contagious. Frequent exposure to doom and gloom political news or tragic updates in the life of a close friend can cast a pall over what would otherwise be a normal (and potentially happy) day. The more you allow this negative information to influence your life, the more at risk you are for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

Fighting Back

The above information may paint a pretty bleak picture when it comes to social media use, but it’s not all bad news. As mentioned earlier, social media has a lot of potential for good when used appropriately. The problem comes when we allow unhealthy attitudes and behaviors to influence our social media use.

So how do you keep social media from stressing you out? Psychology Today recommends that you start by candidly assessing the way you use social media. Are you constantly comparing your life to what you see in others’ pictures and statuses? Do you worry about your social media image or spend hours trying to find something “good” to post? Paying close attention to your feelings and the way you use social media can help you identify if there is a problem.

If a specific person or type of post is contributing to your stressful social media experience (like that uncle who constantly harasses you about your political views), another option is to hide a person’s posts or even block them. In some cases, simply reducing your exposure to a negative individual can help you feel less stressed the next time you go online.

Taking steps to limit your social media use can also make a big difference. For example, you could set a five-minute timer for when you log on to Facebook. When the timer goes off, you have to log off, regardless of what you’re doing. Alternatively, you might make a goal to reduce the number of times you post a status update on social media during the week.

Of course, one of the best things you can do is take a break from social media altogether. Social media fasts have been found to have many benefits, including improved sleep, better self-control, and increased time for real-life interactions with friends and family. Notably, each of these benefits can also reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

It’s worth mentioning that in some cases, professional therapy may be required for those who have developed an addiction to social media, or whose social media use is contributing to serious depression or another mental disorder. You shouldn’t wait to get the help you need. If social media use is interfering in your daily life, you’ll likely need professional support.

None of this necessarily means that you need to quit social media forever. But it’s well worth considering which steps you might need to take to improve your online habits. As you take appropriate actions to take the stress out of your online experience, you’ll be better equipped to make social media a positive place — which is what it was meant to be from the very beginning.