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The 'Cost of Caring' on Social Media

Your dramatic acquaintances can be emotionally draining.

​Social media can put you on an emotional roller coaster: in 10 minutes on Facebook, you may laugh at a coworker's cat GIF, feel outraged at your college classmate's political rant, and get annoyed by yet another photo of your cousin's best friend's newborn. It's therefore natural to assume that people who spend more time on social media are more stressed, but a stud​y published last week from the Pew Research Center indicates that isn't really the case: more time on social media doesn't correlate with more stress. Stress on social media can be contagious, however, and some users are more immune than others when it comes to coping with others' life events.


In the study, researchers called 1,800 adults and asked them questions about their digital media use and their self-assessed stress level. "Stress might come from maintaining a large network of Facebook friends, feeling jealous of their well-documented and well-appointed lives, the demands of replying to text messages, the addictive allure of photos of fantastic crafts on Pinterest, having to keep up with status updates on Twitter, and the 'fear of missing out' on activities in the lives of friends and family," the researchers note.

The researchers found that the relationship between social media and stress is not linear. People who spend more time on social media don't report higher levels of stress overall. In fact, the connectedness that digital communication allows can sometimes be a boon to mental health. According to another Pew s​tudy from 2011, people who use social networks have more close friends, trust people more easily, are more politically active, and overall feel more supported.

The quantity may be irrelevant, but the quality of what people see on social media can make them feel more stressed. "Those users who feel more stress are those whose use of digital tech is tied to higher levels of awareness of stressful events in others' lives," the report reads, a phenomenon that the researchers call "the cost of caring."

Basically, if someone in your network was fired or had a medical emergency, you might feel higher stress levels even if you haven't talked to that person in years. This study's findings add to the gro​wing evidence that emotion portrayed through social media can be contagious.


Here's how that breaks down by social media platform:

But not everyone is equally susceptible to the "cost of caring." The researchers found that women were generally more stressed by the events of others in their network. This is borne out by the chart above: Pinterest users, 80 p​ercent of whom are women, reported the highest number of stressful incidents per year.

The researchers behind the Pew study didn't hypothesize why women may be more affected by what they see on social media. But Graham ​Jones, a psychologist based in the United Kingdom who focuses on how people behave online, has an idea.

"The kind of people who are more likely to be affected by this contagion of stress are the people who are quite intuitive—they don't have to have things explained to them, they can feel it, they sense it," Jones said.

This is because intuitive people are analyzing larger patterns, he said, not looking at tweets word-for-word but getting a deeper sense of what it means and the impetus behind crafting it.

Women, Jones said, are simply more likely to have these intuitive personality types. "That doesn't mean that men don't have them. But you do tend to find that those intuitive personality types are more common in women," he said. "There might be some biological reason for it that we don't yet know. But it might have something to do with the way we bring children up," Jones added, which has been shown to affect their psychology later ​in lifeas well as how they fit into g​ender roles.

Jones is curious to see if the relationship between social media and stress is different across cultural lines, especially in Asian societies that are more focused on a group mentality, which he hopes that researchers will address in future studies.

If you're feeling stressed by social media you may want to reconsider spending less time on it, especially if you (like mos​t of us) have a slight addiction to technology. You should probably just unfollow all those annoying, dramatic people you barely know who kee​p getting in skateboarding accidents. That will make your life a lot less stressful.