It’s Not Just You: Constantly Being Online Impacts Everyone’s Mental Health
We're all vaguely aware that it's neither wise nor healthy to stay glued to a screen 24/7. We've heard whispers of tech's ominous impact on our eyes, sleep, attention, and even skin. And still, we text, binge-watch, Zoom, scroll, email, and TikTok rabbit-hole morning, noon, and night.
On the one hand, we have to appreciate and marvel at what technology and the internet provide. During this challenging period of enforced physical distance, for example, tech has allowed remote coworkers to communicate, separated loved ones to connect, and stir-crazy travelers to catch glimpses of the outside world virtually. So, in some ways, you could argue it helps keep us sane. But new research reinforces that nagging, logical suspicion that permanent online connectedness—both actively being online and even just thinking about being online—can do the exact opposite, exacerbating our stress in an already stressful world.
As with anything, moderation is everything. Unfortunately our lack of moderation when it comes to online communication and digital content consumption has a direct impact on how stressed we are and our ability to cope with other environmental stressors.
We've never been so attached to our screens and the limitless world behind them—a behavioral phenomenon German researchers first introduced as "online vigilance" in a 2018 study published in PLOS ONE. They defined it as "users' permanent cognitive orientation towards online content and communication as well as their disposition to exploit these options constantly." Yep, sounds about right.
Research published in Human Communication Research in December 2020 dove a little deeper into what motivations constitute online vigilance and its impact on our brains. The study defines online vigilance as consisting of three distinct "dimensions." Salience: Our perpetual thinking about the online world. Reactability: Our automatic need to react or respond instantly to notifications. And monitoring: Our conscious, active tendency to check on our devices, apps, and so on.
A large body of previous research has studied the correlation between stress and tech in terms of the environmental demands technology engenders—it accommodates for more stress-inducing demands like multitasking (so many tabs!) and communication and content overload (so many pings to respond to and so many articles to consume!). For this more recent study, however, scientists wanted to find out if there's a potential link between stress and our own cognitive relationship to online activity (aka online vigilance). In other words, beyond your boss' assumption you'll be on email at midnight and the deluge of digital news headlines turning you into a stress ball, are our own deep-seated motivations, attachments, and preoccupations with the online world a potential cause of stress, too? The short answer is yes.
Researchers analyzed 1,800 people across three studies to find out how individuals' online vigilance was, in fact, related to how much stress they experienced in various circumstances. "Results across three studies showed that, in addition to multitasking (but not communication load), especially the cognitive salience of online communication is positively related to stress," the published paper reads. But what exactly does that mean?
For part of the study, researchers first concluded that multitasking was related to stress levels, because this media usage pattern "exceeds and exhausts users' working memory capacities and, consequently, their situational coping capacities." While (somewhat surprisingly) communication load—or the sheer number of messages in your inbox, let's say—didn't seem to have a huge impact on stress.
Another part of the study then tested the direct effects of online vigilance on perceived stress, and found that salience—the tendency to constantly think about online interactions and activity—directly affects stress. It makes sense: Always thinking about checking Instagram, who's texted you, or which daily newsletter has hit your inbox occupies a lot of brain power that would otherwise be used to handle stressors and process situations. In addition, our readiness to react to notifications (reactability) and/or readiness to open our devices unprompted (monitoring), the study explains, mean our cognitive resources are "allocated and reserved for online activities nonstop, which reduces the remaining available resources that might then be rapidly drained and no longer available for coping processes." To summarize: "[W]hen people are mentally occupied with online communication, this may either stress them directly or they will be stressed faster when they encounter challenging situations, such as work demands or interpersonal conflict, due to lacking coping resources."
The fact that we're permanently online (even when we're not literally online) instead of being present sans tech has a clear link to how stressed we are and how stressed we can get. Excuse us while we hatch a plan to cut down on screen time and make room for web-free activities.