Social Media Reduces Stress for Women, But Not Men

Photo: Moodboard/Corbis

What’s social media doing to us? Is it stressing us out with its never-ending pings announcing new baby pictures, engagements, and unimportant messages to respond to? Or is it keeping us connected to people, and therefore happier? These are tricky and loaded questions, but a new survey from Pew adds a bit of evidence to the “social media reduces stress” side of the ledger. At least if you’re a lady.

The survey included a nationally representative sample of 1,801 adults, and in asking them very specific questions about how and how often the respondents used social media, Pew also administered to them a survey called the Perceived Stress Scale, or PSS, which asks how often, in the last 30 days, someone has been upset by something that happened unexpectedly, felt out of control, and so on.

Overall, the researchers found no correlation between the frequency of social-media usage and stress in men. In women, though, “the use of some technologies is tied to lower stress” — albeit to a modest extent. Specifically, a woman “who uses Twitter several times per day, sends or receives 25 emails per day, and shares two digital pictures through her mobile phone per day, scores 21% lower on our stress measure than a woman who does not use these technologies at all.”

So why does this difference exist? A survey like this can’t explain causation, but the researchers think it comes down to the gendered ways men and women communicate in the social-media world. They point out that “existing studies have found that social sharing of both positive and negative events can be associated with emotional well-being and that women tend to share their emotional experiences with a wider range of people than do men.”

In other words, women might be, on average, better than men at putting social media to psychologically healthy uses:

Sharing through email, sending text messages of pictures of events shortly after they happen and expressing oneself through the small snippets of activity allowed by Twitter may provide women with a low-demand and easily accessible coping mechanism that is not experienced or taken advantage of by men. It is also possible that the use of these media replaces activities or allows women to reorganize activities that would otherwise be more stressful.

This was a double-edged sword for women: That greater sense of connectedness also brought greater odds that they’d be aware of bad stuff going on in their friends’ lives — and, as a result, women were more likely to be “infected” by other people’s stress, causing their own to go up. The researchers also found no evidence that awareness of positive stuff going on in friends’ lives was correlated with increased stress — a bit surprising for those of us prone to occasional self-loathing zombie-clicking marathons of looking through other people’s incredibly exciting lives.

Anyway, this is part of a much bigger, broader area of study — as Maria Konnikova explained in 2013, when it comes to Facebook, at least, evidence is mixed but plenty of studies have correlated use of the service with unhappiness. And one survey can’t cover everything; there could be unhealthy social-media habits baked invisibly into the Pew results but overshadowed by other, positive effects, or it could be that certain types of usage only have negative effects among people predisposed to anxiety or depression (which Pew didn’t ask about), for example.

Overall, though, it’s getting harder and harder to make any sweeping generalizations about social media and psychology. Which, you know, makes sense: This stuff is complicated.