See if this is familiar: You post a picture on your social media account, maybe of your vacation or of the meal you prepared, or of your pet doing something so adorable that it puts videos of other people’s grandchildren to shame. Your few dependable “likers” are the first to acknowledge your post with the requisite “thumbs up” or heart. You put your mobile device away to work on that project that’s due at the end of the week, or to eat the meal you just prepared and showed off online. But then you start checking in with your social media account to see if any new reactions have come in. Maybe you pull out your phone during the dinner, or you get stuck on a section of the project and think, Well, I’ll just go back online to check my social media account, see what others are up to. In the meantime, maybe another “like” or reaction has come in, and then you see a fascinating article, or a video, or a friend’s post, and you find yourself responding, and all of a sudden, three hours of your life have gone by and you haven’t gotten anything done.
Or perhaps you’re the type of person to engage online in political discussions-turned-debates-turned-all-out-battles, spending hours checking to see if your online combatant has responded to your last comment. You feel angry, even stressed out, that someone could be so ignorant, and you have to set them straight (or at least not let them get away with their ignorance unscathed).
In any of these cases, you can become sucked into the loop of constant checking, a habit that becomes an addiction. For some, being a constant checker is a search for validation. For other people, constant checking is the same kind of addictive behavior as unconsciously reaching for the third straight cigarette or dipping into the bag of chips when you’re not hungry. But the patterns are the same, and an increased focus on social media is now shown to cause an increased level of stress among Americans.
In fact, in its most recent annual survey on stress in America, the American Psychological Association found that stress and anxiety levels have made the first significant jump higher in ten years. According to the report, “Between August 2016 and January 2017, the overall average reported stress level of Americans rose from 4.8 to 5.1, on a scale where 1 means little or no stress and 10 means a great deal of stress.”
The American Psychological Association made its surprising announcement last month. The report that stress levels are up may not be news to most Americans; however, the extreme rise in rates is what’s so surprising. Between last year’s election and the inauguration, 57% of Americans have reported that the political climate was their main source of stress.
An important corollary effect of the increased levels of stress was the increase in health issues. According to the same APA report, respondents reported “at least one health symptom because of stress rose from 71 percent to 80 percent over five months. A third of Americans have reported specific symptoms such as headaches (34 percent), feeling overwhelmed (33 percent), feeling nervous or anxious (33 percent) or feeling depressed or sad (32 percent).”
It’s no accident that stress levels have gotten higher. In the same ten-year span that the APA has conducted its stress survey, the Pew Research Center has reported that usage of social media has increased from 5% of Americans on social media sites in 2006 to roughly 69% today.
With 69% of Americans on social media sites, many of them becoming constant checkers, being constantly bombarded with contradictory viewpoints from the 24-hour news cycle or from social comparison , it’s no wonder that anxiety rates are up.
You don’t want to give up social media, or civic responsibility, or to find yourself stuck in a filter bubble. So what are some strategies that can help you reduce your stress?
* Stop reading the “Comments” section of news articles. Some people make comments here with the express intent of riling up strangers. It’s the phenomena known as “trolling” (yes, like the trolls from fairy tales who wait under bridges and hope to make people miserable). Most trolls don’t actually believe what they are saying; they “win” a battle just by engaging others in their incendiary speech.
* Do not go onto social media before bedtime. Getting riled up by a late-night post can elevate blood pressure at a time when the body should be winding down. Furthermore, scientific studies have shown that the blue light from computer and phone screens are especially harmful to the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Looking at a computer or phone screen late at night makes it more difficult on a biological level to go to sleep.
* If you rely on your phone as your alarm clock, do not keep it next to your bed. This way, you’re less likely to reach for your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night, further disrupting your circadian rhythms and making yourself more tired (which leads to increased levels of stress).
* Unless you absolutely need to keep your phone nearby for work purposes, do not have your phone or mobile device nearby when you’re trying to get other work done (or, say, trying to live your life). There are even apps and services, such as Freedom, that will block the internet or social media sites for a preset period of time.
* Disable your social media alerts. Constant checkers often check their phones out of habit, because the phone is nearby. If you feel that being a constant checker is rally affecting your life, set your phone so that it doesn’t send you an alert every time someone has reacted to one of your posts or sent you an email. If you need to check for work, you can change your settings to receive alerts ONLY from work-related sources.