On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
Social media makes it easy to share everything from diarrhea to divorce, but how much is healthy?
Nine years ago, when I was newly separated and eager for social support, I clicked the post button, meaning to message an old friend about the agony of my failed marriage. Unfortunately, I was also a novice Facebook user. So when my friend called, I thought she was simply offering support, but then she explained that private messages were different from public wall posts. And when I realized I had posted a mass personal communication announcing details of my divorce, my stress levels skyrocketed.
It’s healthy to reach for camaraderie during difficult times, and social media makes it easy to recruit support. Pew research notes Facebook users report significantly higher levels of social support, emotional support, and companionship than nonusers. In fact, a 2011 report published by Pew Research states, “Someone who uses Facebook multiple times per day gets about half the boost in total support that someone receives from being married or living with a partner.” (Plus, Facebook doesn’t leave dirty socks lying around.)
Social media can be an excellent support resource, but it can be a significant source of stress as well. The problem is during hardship, what we choose to share on social media—and how others respond to it—can seriously impact our stress levels. While my post was a mistake, people sometimes seem to have verbal diarrhea on social media.
“If you share a negative/stressful experience or event online (whether that be on your social networking site—i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., or anonymous online community), the type of responses you receive can lead to increased or decreased levels of stress,” Pamara Chang, assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Cincinnati, tells me.
Chang explains that if users’ comments are helpful to “reframe or reappraise a negative experience, this interaction can help the stressed discloser cope, adapt, and emotionally recover.” However, the opposite could be true also. Chang elaborates that comments can also “encourage the discloser to further ruminate on the negative/stressful experience which would then intensify the negative emotions, undermining recovery.” In other words, you could be pushed to overanalyze in a way that’s detrimental to your healing process.
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Social media responses are unpredictable—especially if you’re one of those follow-me-please; IGAF if we’re friends in real life” types (no judgment)—so it’s important to consider that putting our personal struggles on display can cause unintended stress in real life. Consider my friend, Firefighter Fred (name changed for fear of reprisal). Fred suffers from Crohn’s disease, a debilitating condition with periods of exacerbations and remissions. During one of Fred’s painful exacerbations, he began an online support group for people isolated by Crohn’s disease. He shared his personal struggles while providing support and camaraderie for hundreds of others like him. Months passed and Firefighter Fred found a great deal of support online.
However, when Fred was finally in remission and returned to work, he was denied a promotion with his superior referencing his illness during their meeting. “I asked him how he knew anything about my illness, as he hadn’t directly talked with me about it and isn’t allowed to ask about it either,” Fred tells me. His boss told him he saw it on Facebook.
Whereas Fred found support and camaraderie in the virtual world, his personal disclosure brought a lot of stress to his professional life. He says he’s sad that what he did on social media was being used against him out of context. “It’s frustrating that I even have to worry about it or how affects my family.”
Still, Fred acknowledges that his online self-disclosure offered emotional support and benefited the lives of many others. When asked if he would do it again, he says he would, since the community he helped build was important and it was an overall positive move.
But like Chang says, when social media doesn’t offer the support we need, it can be derailing. Take the case of Jose Torres, 36, from New Jersey. During his battle with addiction, Torres turned to his personal Facebook page to plead for help and support. However, Torres didn’t receive the support he hoped for. In fact, he said, “the backlash and response was so bad I had to delete a lot and hide much of what I was struggling with.” Ultimately, sharing his struggle on social media damaged relationships with friends and family.
Another thing: When scrolling through somebody's news feed, it’s natural to have a negative reaction to a post your passionately disagree with. Think about how much energy it takes to process—and consciously ignore—these posts. Surveys show just the awareness of other people’s hardships can increase stress levels. Unfortunately, negative reactions don’t even have to be real to cause stress. According to research published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, social media users may experience “anticipated responses” and “imagined reactions” which can also increase stress levels. Think about the folks you might have added on Facebook and how many of them might be closet Trump supporters. I'm imagining some of their responses to my posts about Putin’s BFF right now.
In the 1960’s, Albert Mehrabian—professor emeritus at UCLA and body language scholar—stated that nonverbal communication makes up 93 perfect of interpersonal interaction. Now, 93 percent might be an overstatement, but we do know that non-verbal communication is important for effectively conveying messages. Yet, written communication is the primary method for transmitting information online, but not everyone is skilled in written communication. Nobody cues there. You can't always sense the tone. And let's face it, not everyone is poetic enough to articulate their feelings tactfully. Which means, messages can be skewed or lost when a user converts emotions and ideas to text.
Still, social media can be a great place to find support. Chang adds, “One of the advantages of the internet is that you can access and communicate with others who are experiencing similar events as you are.” But before you post about a challenging life situation online, she recommends you consider, who “you are sharing it with and what you want in return.” You don't want to be that attention-hungry person you side-eye instead of sympathize with.
One last thing to consider before posting, appealing for help is different than venting, so choose your words carefully and be specific. Chang warns, “The more implicit the request for help or more frequent the posts of distress, the less likely your social network will respond, both in terms of quantity and quality.” If you don’t get the response you hope for online, she adds, “using a more direct and private channel to request support from family and friends may be more effective.”
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