A number of studies over the past few years have shown that people who spend a lot of time on social media can experience stress—mostly because they worry about how people perceive their posts. A new survey from the Pew Research Center bucks that trend, however. The Pew survey shows that people don't experience added stress as a result of their time using Facebook, Twitter, etc., and that some users—particularly women—feel less stress as they feel more connected with other people.
Why the discrepancy? One reason is that we're dealing with emotions, and in this case with the self-reporting of a person's feelings. If a study involves monitoring users while they engage in social media activities—watching their heart rate or other stress indicators—it could produce very different results than general questions about a person's feelings about social media in general. I think some of the previous studies were more along these lines. A survey involves asking questions, and people can give inaccurate responses for any number of reasons. They might feel embarrassed about the truth, they may be saying what they think the questioner wants to hear, or they could simply be wrong about what's actually going on.
Studies have shown that, when asked about the value of multi-tasking, people often report being able to juggle two or three disparate activities simultaneously, and feel that they're doing all of those activities well. The perception of multi-tasking is often that it saves time, and that it's necessary given the extreme exposure we have to competing streams of information. However, studies actually measuring people's performance while multi-tasking have shown the opposite to be true. Participants' performance dropped by as much as 40% while doing two or three tasks at once—and even more troubling, long-term exposure to multi-tasking can make it much more difficult to filter out irrelevant information. By engaging in heavy multi-tasking, people train themselves to be less effective, less focused, and less able to sort out the critical from the trivial.
Studies have also shown that using a computer or tablet before bed can make it more difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep, although many of us spend hours watching TV or surfing the Internet in the evenings. Hard evidence doesn't necessarily change our behavior one way or the other.
The Pew study ends up showing social media engagement to be a mixed bag. People can feel more connected to friends and family, which lowers stress. At the same time, they're also more aware of problems those people are having, which can increase stress. Heavy social media users can end up worrying about how their posts are being received, which can also cause people to feel stressed out. I suppose a certain amount of common sense is in order—although I think these studies often show us that we don't have a solid grasp of how these activities are actually affecting us.