Stress and Technology

See also: What’s Stressing You Out? Quiz

There is much talk about the impact of technology on stress. The use of technology has even been blamed for a so-called epidemic of mental health problems among young people—but is this really fair?

Technology is simply the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. We have therefore been using technology for millennia. From the invention of the wheel through to cars and smartphones, via machines like the Spinning Jenny, technology has both improved our lives and created challenges. Is it just that we don’t (yet) know how to manage the challenges of the current crop of technologies? Or is there something more?

This page unpicks some of the issues behind the link between stress and technology. It discusses evidence about the association, and highlights behaviours that may be especially problematic. It also suggests some ways that you can break the connection between stress and technology in your own life.

Stress and Technology: What’s the Problem?

When we talk about stress and technology, we’re not really talking about the dictionary definition of technology (see box).

technology, n. the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry; machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge.

Source: Oxford Languages

Nobody is suggesting that cars, say, or bicycles are a source of stress. However, both of these count as technology under the definition above.

It is possible to envisage scenarios when we might be stressed because of a car—perhaps because of the cost of fixing something that has gone wrong, or because we are worried about driving somewhere new. It is also possible to envisage scenarios where cars make things less stressful. For example, they enable to get rapidly from one place to another when public transport is unavailable or inconvenient.

In other words, almost any technology can be linked to feelings of stress—but the same thing can also reduce stress.

The problem therefore does not lie in technology itself, but in how we use it.

Look back through history, and you will see that this is true of any new technology, because we have not yet worked out how best to manage it. At the moment, the problem lies with modern telecommunications technology such as smartphones—but largely because those are relatively new to us. In ten years’ time, we will probably be worrying about something else.

In the meantime, though, it is clear that the use of smartphones, and particularly social media can be the cause of considerable stress (see box).

The link between technology and stress: what’s the evidence?

1. Technology use is associated with social isolation

One study found that excessive use of technology can lead to a lack of face-to-face communication and social interaction. This, in turn, may lead to people feeling both stressed and isolated.

2. Social media use is associated with higher perceived stress

A study among American college students found a link between more social media use and higher perceived stress. The authors suggested that students who used social media more often might be using time that could have been filled with other activities that might have been better for their stress levels, such as taking exercise or meeting friends in real life.

There is more about this in our page on Social Media and Mental Health.

3. Technology use can be associated with poorer sleep quality

Another study found that greater use of technology was associated with poorer sleep quality and less physical exercise. These, in turn, were associated with a higher risk of stress, anxiety and depression.

There is more about this in our pages on What is Sleep? and The Importance of Exercise.

Five Key Areas of Stress

What is it about smartphones that is particularly stressful? The problems fall into several areas, including:

  • The nature of smartphones themselves, such as the arrival of notifications, or the sheer volume of entertainment and diversion available;

  • What they enable or encourage us to do, such as make unhelpful comparisons with other people’s lives, or feel under pressure to be available all the time; and

  • What they may distract us from doing, including switching off, meeting friends, and taking exercise.

Research suggests that there are probably five key areas of concern.

1. The level of distraction and interruptions

One of the biggest issues with smartphones is the constant beep of new notifications.

Even if you have turned off most of the notifications on your apps, you probably have several still enabled. You are also likely to on the alert for particular notifications—whether that’s a text from a family member, or an email from your boss. It is also human nature to stop what we’re doing to check each notification ‘just in case’.

This makes it much harder to concentrate on any particular task, and has knock-on effects on our general ability to concentrate for any length of time.

This doesn’t just apply to smartphones. There is growing evidence that high levels of internet use more generally are associated with poorer memory and cognitive skills. However, most of us tend to do most of our internet use via mobile phones rather than laptops.

We have also lost the habit of entertaining ourselves. If we are bored, we tend to reach for our phones and start scrolling. There is a huge volume of content available to entertain us, not all of it particularly useful or informative.

For more about how to manage this, you may be interested in our page on Minimising Distractions.

2. The effect on our sleep patterns

One of the biggest issues with smartphones is their portability.

Where we would leave a computer downstairs, we take our phones to bed with us because we can—and then we end up scrolling social media until late into the night. The constant churn of new content keeps us fixated, and there’s no end-point to stop us.

The light from the screen can also interfere with the body’s sleep processes, affecting the production of hormones that are associated with good sleep quality.

All in all, smartphones are bad news for getting enough good quality sleep.

There is more about ‘sleep hygiene’ in our page on The Importance of Sleep.

3. The effect on our work–life balance

Smartphones have enabled us to stay connected to work. This has supported working from home, and enabled people to spend more time away from the office.

However, it hasn’t really increased relaxation or leisure time.

Instead, we feel under pressure to be always available to respond to work-related messages. We don’t stop work when we go home for the evening. We simply take our work with us, even on holiday. It is very hard to disengage completely.

There is more about this—and how to manage it—in our page on Work–Life Balance.

4. The rise in social expectations and the fear that we are missing out

Social media can fuel so-called FOMO, or fear of missing out, and lead to problems with status anxiety.

We have a deep-rooted need to belong, to be connected to and within a social group. To a certain extent, all of us probably worry that other people may leave us out of social activities. The constant need to check our social media feeds stems from this anxiety that we may be missing something important.

Ironically, however, the constant checking can just increase the fear, because it shows us when other people are doing something fun without us.

There is more about this in our page on Social Media and Mental Health.

5. The increased possibilities for (unrealistic) social comparison

Social media in particular gives us unparalleled opportunities to compare our own lives unfavourably with those of others.

We may develop poorer self-esteem as we conclude that our lives are more boring, or less worthwhile, than those of friends, family members or celebrities. This can lead to problems with depression and anxiety, especially in those already prone to these issues.

There are, of course, other issues associated with smartphone use, such as the level of time-wasting associated with scrolling through social media, or the downward spiral that occurs when you are worried about something, and you start ‘doom-scrolling’ through negative posts about that issue.

There is more about these issues in our page on Problematic Smartphone Use.

Managing Technology-Based Stress: The Importance of Taking Back Control

Our page on Understanding Stress makes clear that stress is often caused by the feeling of being out of control.

In other words, it is not so much particular events or activities that are stressful in themselves, as the feeling that we are not controlling our lives.

This suggests that the way to manage stress induced by the use of technology is to take (back) control. Some ways to do this include:

  • Setting boundaries on your use of technology, such as limiting your use of particular sites or your phone as a whole. You may be able to do this yourself through willpower, but you can also use controls on apps or your router.

  • Turning off notifications or putting your phone away for a set time or activity, perhaps while you are completing a particular task, or at mealtimes, or when you are with friends.

  • Putting your phone onto silent while you exercise, even if you take it with you in case of emergencies.

  • Deleting social media apps on your phone, so that you’re not tempted to scroll mindlessly during every small gap in your day.

  • Leaving your phone outside the bedroom, so that you aren’t scrolling late at night and can’t automatically reach for your phone first thing in the morning.

There are more ideas about how to take control of your smartphone use—including if it has become a problem—in our page on Problematic Smartphone Use.

Managing the Knock-On Issues

It is also helpful to address the knock-on issues that start to emerge from over-reliance on technology, such as the effect on your health.

For example, it is a good idea to make sure that you get out and meet friends face-to-face periodically, and don’t rely on technology. Face-to-face interactions are far more satisfying. Humans are social animals, and we really need that personal contact with others.

It’s also good to ensure that you take plenty of exercise. This is good for both mental and physical health—but it also means that you have less time to waste scrolling through social media. Being physically tired will help you to sleep better, too.

Finally, if you are really struggling to take back control, there is no shame in seeking professional help. Social media and other internet sites are designed to be addictive, and it’s hard to break an addiction alone.

In Conclusion

Technology is nothing new, but the current generation of technologies seems to pose new and unique challenges.

Being able to communicate instantly with people around the world is a great thing under many circumstances. However, it can also have less positive consequences when it is not managed effectively. It is important for all of us to learn how to manage the challenges of technology, so that we can take advantage of the positives but avoid the negatives.