- Digital stress is a source of interpersonal stress resulting from negative experiences online or constant access to information.
- Young people need to be aware of the content they're consuming and how it affects them emotionally.
- Restricting social media use will not solve the problem of digital stress.
Ask any 40-something person about social media, and they’ll tell you the same thing: “I’m just glad it wasn’t around when I was in school.”
That’s because most of us remember our junior high and high school years and how awkward we felt, how strange we looked, or how much we didn’t fit in. Or maybe we were having too good of a time, and our parents were none the wiser. At any rate, everyone is glad their adolescence was not documented for everyone to see, for all of time – the school yearbook was evidence enough.
So it’s no surprise that Gen Z and those younger, who are navigating the very private process of growing up in a very public way, might be more stressed than those who grew up in years that started with 19. The social ups and downs of teenage life used to only unfold in hushed cafeteria conversations and meetings behind the bleachers but are now captured in hi-def audio and video and shared with anyone with a smartphone. This only heightens the emotional intensity around years that are already all-consuming.
Researchers call this digital stress or a source of interpersonal stress resulting from negative experiences online or constant access to information. This can represent the kind of stress that comes from cyberbullying and other malicious behavior but more frequently describes the more low-grade stress responses to digital media – like the stress that comes from feeling like one always has to be available, the anxiety that can come from lack of response to posted content, the unease of FOMO, or simply the drain that comes from incessant dings, pings, emails, and notifications. While that causes cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses in all people, the identity development processes in the teen and young adult years can make these stress responses even stronger.
It has been shown that digital stress is associated with depression and anxiety, either immediately or years down the road. Yet it’s important to note that digital media itself is not “causing” these outcomes. We all come to media with a certain psychology and set of experiences, and it filters through all those interfaces and websites to produce a response in us and for us on the other side. These are subjective experiences. So the barrage of notifications or lack of Instagram likes could leave one person unfazed and send another into a funk.
What is key here is to recognize digital stress and know what to do when it strikes the young person in your life. While the research doesn’t yet offer concrete recommendations for those caring for young people, the work of psychologist Ric Steele and team points us in a direction. Here are three tips to keep in mind.
- Know if your young person might be more susceptible to the effects of digital stress. Some prior research suggests that those who have had previous psychological challenges may be hit harder by the effects of digital stress, especially when how they use digital media is taken into consideration. If your young person has struggled in this way, being in close conversation with them about their use and what they see online can help to catch issues before they escalate.
- Focus on quality, not quantity. Digital stress isn’t so much about screen time as it is about how it’s used and consumed. So ask your young person more focused questions such as “What do you like and dislike about this platform?” “Why do you use it?” How does this improve your relationships with your friends?” or “Does interacting this way ever make you sad, mad, or frustrated?” By trying to understand their motivations behind why they use what they use, you can get a sense of whether it's being used in a healthy way or if their digital use needs to include more positive aspects.
- Don’t assume that eliminating social media eliminates the problem. Challenges with depression, anxiety, and other emotional states are complex, and taking away one’s phone or deleting Tik Tok won’t alleviate it (in all cases). In fact, in some instances, a young person’s online social network and the strong connections they have there may actually bolster mental well-being, so cutting them off from social support only adds fuel to the fire. Instead, dig a little deeper and ask questions about the root of the problem, including feeling anxious, left out, or overwhelmed based on digital interactions.
We all live with some digital stress, but the intensity of what goes on physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially in adolescence and young adulthood only heightens the experience for Gen Z. Help the young person in your life to manage their digital exposure in a way that offers the best chance for emotional balance, and they'll be able to navigate their digital journey with more ease.
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Nesi, J., Choukas-Bradley, S., & Prinstein, M. J. (2018). Transformation of adolescent peer relations in the social media context: Part 1—A theoretical framework and application to dyadic peer relationships. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review,21(3), 267–294. https://doi-org.fgul.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10567-018-0261-x.
Nick, E.A., Kilic, Z., Nesi, J., Telzer, E.H., Lindquist, K.A., Prinstein, M.J. (2022). Adolescent Digital Stress: Frequencies, Correlates, and Longitudinal Association With Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Adolescent Health,70 (2), 336-339. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.08.025.
Steele, R.G., Hall, J.A. & Christofferson, J.L. (2020). Conceptualizing Digital Stress in Adolescents and Young Adults: Toward the Development of an Empirically Based Model. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 23, 15–26 (2020). https://doi-org.fgul.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10567-019-00300-5
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Winstone, L., Mars, B., Haworth, C. M. A., & Kidger, J. (2023). Types of Social Media Use and Digital Stress in Early Adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 43(3), 294–319. https://doi-org.fgul.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/02724316221105560