Stress and frustration caused by digital media

Stress caused by work – not an unusual phenomenon and often there is not much we can do against it. But stress follows us into our leisure time. Stress factors often reach us through digital media and technology: new emails, missed calls, unread messages. Consuming media can itself be a source of stress: checking out news in social media, sharing recent experiences with friends online and staying up to date with your favourite show. And not to forget the stress caused by technical difficulties, faulty devices or slow internet.

Digital stress has many faces: advancing digitalisation for example in self-service checkouts, digital restaurant menus, buying tickets. Error messages, connection issues or difficult user interfaces. Countless messages or multitasking when using a second screen. Or wasting time on the phone by compulsively scrolling through Instagram feeds, binge watching or the pressure to stay perpetually active on social media. Fotos: Markus Spiske, COLOURBOX (3)

A team of researchers of the University of Augsburg is investigating how digital stress is perceived in everyday life and how individuals deal with it. The results allow for tangible recommendations on how to improve individual wellbeing. For this end our researchers in the field of communication studies are using various methods, like interviews, group discussions and media diaries. The long-term study started in November 2020 and will last until early 2022.

What exactly is digital stress?

The research team defines digital stress as stress that is caused by the use of digital media and technology. Early results of the study have shown that media is often not perceived as a contributor to the individual stress level. “Many interviewees emphasise the advantages of digital media in reducing stress. That being perpetually available and the fear of missing out are raising their personal stress level permanently, only becomes clear to them during the conversation with us,” says project manager Lisa Waldenburger. What exactly causes digital stress depends on user habits, the overall stress level and the technological competence of each person. The debate surrounding the question “what is digital stress?” is diverse and can only be answered individually.

Healthy use of digital media

Instead of broadly painting technology either as “good” or “bad”, as is so often the case in today’s coverage of the topic, the research project aims to develop coping strategies for digital stress that also incorporate the advantages of media. “What became apparent in our survey group was that reflecting your own media usage with the help of a media diary can already reduce stress in the long term,” project leader Jeffrey Wimmer summarises the early results. This form of contemplation on the one hand helps to realise what forms of media have a positive effect and can be of use and on the other hand reveal habits that can potentially cause stress, for example reading emails and messages before getting out of bed. Based on this the researchers have developed strategies to use media free of stress, or how to actively combat stress.

Different solutions

The coping strategies that were developed were tested by the study participants and clarify once again how different media usage, stress caused by it and helpful strategies can be. Two major groups could be distinguished: those who use very little technology and media and whose stress is generated by a lack of competence in their use and those who use a lot of technology and media and often are stressed out by an overload of messages, calls and information.

The first group, which generally features more older people, experiences digital stress less persistently and instead in specific situations during which they have to interact with technology. They are for example stressed out by ATMs or self-service checkouts. Using smart phones or laptops can also be a source of stress. In these cases stress can be reduced by targeted media competence training. For a long time the many new opportunities media and technology have to offer has been publicly treated as optional or even a gimmick. As a consequence many older users have been left behind. “It is important to respect the individual needs of each person – some find a written set of instructions that they can always refer to useful, other want to understand the technology and try it out on their own. Yet again others are just simply not confident enough,” describes Jeffrey Wimmer.

Meanwhile, the second group has already acquired a high level of competence in dealing with digital media (as early adopters) or has grown up with a plethora of digital media and technologies. “The various forms of use of digital media that have developed over the last years require a new form of media competence – selection and prioritisation. It is simply not possible anymore to use all the options offered by digital media. Therefore it is extremely important to think about which forms of media are beneficial for your wellbeing and to increase your competence to reflect your own media use,” summarises Lisa Waldenberger. In order to reduce experience less digital stress it also makes sense to discuss expectations with others. Sometimes the other person may not actually wait for an immediate reaction and there is no need to feel stressed. All this aids in reducing digital stress and in learning the healthy use of media and technology

About the project

The research project investigating digital stress in everyday media life has been active since 2019 and is part of the research association ForDigitHealth, which is sponsored by the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and Arts. Other projects featuring researchers from Augsburg deal with how digital stress is presented in the media and how artificial intelligence can help in developing technology that is aware of stress and promotes health.

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Our Researchers

Media Reality
Researcher and PhD candidate
Media Reality