We've talked long and often about how the Internet becomes a black hole for our productivity and leisure time, Twitter spats stress us out unnecessarily and constant connectivity distracts and exhausts.
But a new large-scale study from the Pew Research Center suggests using social media in a particular way may actually reduce stress, at least for women.
According to research from the Washington-based think tank, which asked 1,801 adults about how stressful they feel their lives are, a woman "who uses Twitter several times per day, sends or receives 25 e-mails per day and shares two digital pictures through her mobile phone per day, scores 21 per cent lower on our stress measure than a woman who does not use these technologies at all."
The more e-mails women sent and received, the more photos they shared via smartphone and the more they used Twitter, the lower their reported stress. As for men, there was no relationship between frequent Internet use and stress.
Pew suggests the gender differences may come down to how the sexes use the Web socially. Citing prior research, the study authors argued that women share their emotional experiences with more people than men do: "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. Sharing through e-mail, sending text messages or 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," they argued. Using social media a lot, they added, could give women the perception of more social supports.
But it wasn't all rosy for women: The researchers also examined whether social technologies that allow families and friends to quickly get wind of the stressful events in the lives of their loved ones – be it divorces, layoffs, hospitalization and so on – could spike the observers' levels of anxiety. The findings suggested that yes, especially for women, greater awareness gleaned through the Web of others' stress ratcheted up the women's own worry. The study authors dubbed this "the cost of caring."
Women were particularly affected by news of illness or death in their circles. Men were only occasionally frazzled by what they read on their social feeds, and interestingly, only two types of bad news gnawed at them: someone close to them being arrested for a crime or getting demoted at work.
There was also no evidence in the findings of schadenfreude among either sex: Neither men nor women got fretful when friends humble bragged good news of weddings and engagements from their feeds.