Media Spotlight

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Stress, Texting, and Being Social

How do cell phones and text messaging affect how young people manage stress?

The rise of modern telecommunications has transformed the way  people communicate, especially young people. Recent surveys show that 96 percent of college undergraduates own smartphones (vs 82 percent of adults overall). Since 2004, smartphone use has grown by more than 5000 percent and the demand for more voice and data services is still greater than ever.    For college undergraduates, text mesaging remains the single most popular way of communicating and many students view it as a key part of social life. In 2011 alone, cell phone owners between the age of 18 and 24 reported sending more than 100 texts a day on average and adolescents are becoming increasingly dependent on texting as well.

But what does the rise of texting as a form of social communication mean in terms of the overall quality of life? Despite news stories warning about the dangers of texting (including texting while driving, "sexting," and texts sent while under the influence of drugs or alcohol), text messaging seems here to stay. Research looking at the impact of texting on social relationships, academic performance, and personal safety suggests that being able to communicate digitally helps foster those relationships that are important in a texter's life. While personal cell phones have already promoted a sense of perpetual access (in which people are available to communicate at any time, day or night), texting places even more stress on people to be always available. 

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For people receiving a text, the pressure to open the message when it received, regardless of what else is going on, is strong. Young people often feel the need to answer their phone at any time, even when preoccupied with something else. It is probably not surprising that most jurisdictions have passed laws banning the use of cell phones while driving and many schools demand that all cell phones be turned off during classes and other school events. Many young people report feeling disconnected when they are cut off from their cell phones, even for relatively brief periods. 

This dependence on cell phones and other methods of communicating often leads to a "double-bind" with users feeling stressed over needing to be available at all times as well as feeling disoriented when that contact is no longer available. This "cell phone lifestyle" can create a psychosocial trap for young people and adolescents that affects health and well-being. In a 2005 Finnish study, for example,  Finnish adolescents showed a strong link between cell-phone use and potentially life-threatening behaviours such as alcohol use and smoking. Other researchers have found that texting behaviour is linked to measures of physiological arousal such as increased heart-rate, respiration, and muscle tension. Frequent cell phone use has also been linked to sleep problems and symptoms of depression over time. 

One potential explanation for why frequent texting can lead to health-care problems is that texting causes young people to remain in a state of arousal that makes it more difficult to relax or sleep. This leads to a greater allostatic load over time due to the cumulative effects of constant stress. While phone and text messaging allows people to stay in touch with friends and family members,  is the overall health impact of this kind of accessibility positive or negative?  

A new research study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture takes a look at how text messaging is linked to  interpersonal stress in college students and also examined the overall impact of text messaging on health and well-being.  Conducted by Karla  Klein Murdock of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, the study examined 83 first-year undergraduates on measures of interpersonal stress, academic and social burnout, number of daily text messages sent or received, and sleep problems. The study focused on first-year undergraduates since they were most likely to be facing interpersonal stress due to their being in a state of transition as they adjust to college life. Academic and social burnout was measured by standardized testing looking at cynicism, emotional exhaustion, and reduced self-efficacy.  

The study was designed to test three hypotheses: 

  1. Higher levels of interpersonal stress were expected to be linked to higher levels of burnout, sleep problems, and lower levels of emotional well-being.
  2. Higher level of text messaging were expected to be linked to poorer functioning in all three of these areas.
  3. High levels of both text messaging and interpersonal stress would lead to the poorest outcome for all students tested.

Statistical analysis of the study results confirmed the first hypothesis but text messaging was found to be linked mainly to poorer sleep. For the students in the study, there was also a strong relationship between number of texts sent and received and risk of emotional burnout and lower level of well-being. Based on the results, Dr. Murdock suggested that a heavy text messaging "lifestyle" may not allow people to take a break from stressful communications and leaves them more vulnerable to interpersonal stress as a result.   

The very act of text messaging can magnify the effects of interpersonal stress because of the time and energy involved in a non-stop social environment. This leads to a greater cognitive and attentional load. For students in their first year of collage, text messaging may be self-reinforcing with a high level of text messaging leading to a need to communicate more to handle stress.   While text messaging by itself does not automatically lead to problems, students already dealing with high levels of interpersonal stress are already more vulnerable to the problems linked to greater text messaging.

For research results linking text messaging to sleep problems, the relationship seems fairly clear. Possible reasons for this relationship including students using their phones for texting late at night leading to a later beditime, more disturbed sleep, or the use of caffeinated products such as coffee to ensure that users stay awake while texting at night. This lead to a greater likelihood of sleepiness during the day and reduced awareness. Exposure to a bright screen late at night may also produce melatonin and lead to a dysregulation of the normal day/night sleep schedule. 

Waking up at night may be more frequent because of cell phones going off since most people sleep with them within earshot. According to one study, 89 percent of cell phone users keep their cell phones in their bedrooms at night with 56 percent keeping it within arm's reach. For 14- to 17-year-olds, the overwhelming majority keep their phones in their bedrooms (many even keeping them under their pillow while they sleep). That cell phone and text-messaging appears to be linked to problems with interpersonal stress and burnout may not be so surprising.

Though this research study suggests tontinuous access to texting and cell phones can be linked to stress, there are still some limitations to what conclusions can be made. The study only deals with first-year college students and also fails to  look at  factors such as use of caffeine products, sleep aids, or other substances that can affect sleep. Also, since these are first-year students, how and when they use cell phones and text messaging may change over time as they become more adapted to college life. 

Still, the results indicate that, regardless of the level of stress experienced, amount of texting is directly linked to students getting less sleep. Since text messaging has become a key part of communication in American culture, it is important for researchers to take a closer look at the psychological impact it can have on how people interact. Being continually connected to the rest of the world can be either positive or negative depending on how we adapt to the challenge this brings. How this dependence on modern communications grows and changes with time remains to be seen.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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