There is increasing evidence that as we use more and more online technology we are becoming more and more obsessed by it. The proportion of people who constantly check their mobile phones for messages or posts from friends is increasing at an alarming rate. Indeed, people are so keen to think they are being communicated with that the majority of phone users receive “phantom buzzes“. This is where they think their phone has vibrated, but it hasn’t; their mind is so geared up to wanting a message it is inventing them all on its own.

Theoretically, this could be linked to stress. The less we feel in control and the more that technology controls us, the more likely we are to be stressed.

There is some evidence that increasing technology use is indeed linked to stress. However, a recent study has revealed an interesting connection between our use of social media technology and our likelihood of having stress.

The research conduced by Pew Internet found that on the whole social networking did not lead to any particular degree of stress. We appear to be taking all the interruptions “in our stride”.

Problems do appear to arise, however, when we see other people online exhibiting stress. We can detect stress in their comments, the images they post and so on.

It turns out that when we see other people showing signs of stress online, we are much more likely to become stressed ourselves.

In other words you can exhibit stress simply because you read something from someone else who is stressed.

Stress is contagious – you can catch it from social networking.

Indeed, for years it has been thought that stress is passed on. In a variety of social settings where anxiety is shown by a small number of people, the surrounding people can increasingly show anxiety. You can witness this in crowd situations where a potential danger is noticed by one or two people, with the anxiety spreading throughout the group. The notion that mood can be passed on from one person to another is nothing new.

However, what this new study shows is that the stress can be passed on through an intermediary – a social network. You no longer need to be present with another person to “catch” their stress or anxiety – you can get it from what they post online.

So what does this mean for us, as users of social networks? It suggests that they are increasing our vulnerability to stress. We are exposing ourselves to a greater likelihood of some kind of stress trigger from the negative emotions of others we engage with online.

Given that stress is linked to fatal conditions such as heart disease and cancer it means that preventing and dealing with stress in our lives is probably more important now than it has ever been in our history.

What does this mean from a practical sense? It means that perhaps we need to set a routine for social media in our lives – looking at it just a few times a day, but not being obsessed by it and checking the networks every five minutes or allowing “notifications” of messages. In other words, we need to manage social networks more, before they manage us.


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