Always connected, always available: digital stress and its consequences

Digital stress is a growing research topic. How does it affect us to be surrounded by digital media in almost every area of our lives? What is digital stress and what can it do?

The health risks of digital stress

A relatively new medical and social phenomenon has been coming under the spotlight: digital stress, the consequence of frequent and prolonged use of the digital devices that surround us. Headache is a common manifestation of digital stress.

Virtually everywhere: digital media

The vast majority of jobs involve some level of computer usage. Many of us sit in front of a screen for hours at work. At home, we use a laptop to look up information, buy things and plan trips. Some people spend hours browsing on their tablet to pass the time. And our smartphones accompany us practically everywhere. We use them for many things apart from phone calls: messaging, checking emails, using social media, the apps that help us through the day. All these things can add up to digital stress.

What is digital stress?

Digital stress refers to frequent or constant use of information and communication technology devices.
Being connected all the time exposes users to a glut of information that can be overwhelming and cause stress.
Research in young adults shows that smartphones, tablets and other devices have their uses and make everyday life easier. On the down side, almost all studies show that being so reliant on digital can harm your health. Not without my phone!

Early research into people’s relationship with their constant digital companion indicated increased levels of stress. Young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 were the hardest hit, according to studies in 2011. In this age group who grew up with digital technology, heavy smartphone use was found to be related to sleep disorders and signs of depression. Both of these health issues can cause headaches.

Die Angst, etwas zu versäumen, bereitet Stress

But if excessive smartphone use causes stress, why don't we just put our phones down more often or leave them at home when we're out and about?

Fear of missing out (FOMO) causes stress

The fear of missing out on something (FOMO) is why people need to have their phones at their fingertips night and day. Not only that, FOMO more or less forces people to check their phones for messages, recent psychological studies say. It is rooted in the worry that other people are living their best lives and you are not. You’re on the outside looking in. Everybody else is in there having fun. This emotion can keep you on your phone far more than is good for you, researchers say.

This phone fact will shock you

Your phone can affect you in ways you would never imagine. We’ve all been there. You’re working hard on something that needs your full attention. Your phone pings. Your concentration is shattered. Finally, you refocus on your work. Your phone pings again. And so it goes on. But it’s worse than you think. A study showed that your phone distracts you just by being there. Even if you put it face down, mute it or switch it off and think you are fully focused on your work, it is still having a bad effect on your mental performance.

Wie können wir gegensteuern?

The mere presence of your phone interferes with your concentration and makes you perform worse in whatever you are doing. These curious results suggest that physically distancing yourself from your phone is the only way to prevent loss of productivity.

Digital stress and headaches

Experts agree that stress is a major headache and migraine trigger (check out the article on our website), so it seems obvious that digital stress can increase your headache burden. This was demonstrated in a recent, large-scale German study in more than 5000 people. More than half of the respondents (55%) said they had high levels of digital stress. These people suffered from headaches on a regular basis. Among the less stressed, as many as 30 percent reported headaches.

In the high digital stress group, the proportion of people reporting poor sleep was 25 percentage points higher. 38 percent of the digitally stressed group reported physical fatigue (22 percentage points more than in the less-stressed group. Emotional exhaustion was also 27 percentage points higher.

The study shows that digital stress can impact our health and can also be a direct cause of headaches. The researchers recommend that we think about ways to reduce our digital stress.

What can we do to offset the effects?

Much more research is needed into the exact links between digital stress and its possible health impacts.
Digital media affects almost all areas of our lives these days. Nobody would seriously question the benefits of digital technology in our lives. But we absolutely should be mindful in our use. A little “digital detox” does you good.

That would include sticking to off-screen breaks at work – without whipping out your phone. Deliberately spending time away from your phone can be a blessing too. Banish your phone from the room for a few hours, or leave it behind when you go out - on a hike with friends, to run an errand around the corner, or when you go to a concert.

These are good ways to reduce your digital stress and spare your nerves. And save yourself a headache or two.

  • References
    • Cain J. It's Time to Confront Student Mental Health Issues Associated with Smartphones and Social Media. Am J Pharm Educ. 2018 Sep;82(7):6862. doi: 10.5688/ajpe6862. PMID: 30323396; PMCID: PMC6181159.
    • Fischer T, Reuter M, Riedl R. The Digital Stressors Scale: Development and Validation of a New Survey Instrument to Measure Digital Stress Perceptions in the Workplace Context. Front Psychol. 2021 Mar 12;12:607598. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.607598. PMID: 33776836; PMCID: PMC7994533.
    • Gimpel H, Berger M, Regal C, Urbach N, Kreilos M, Becker J, Derra ND. Belastungsfaktoren der digitalen Arbeit: Eine beispielhafte Darstellung der Faktoren, die digitalen Stress hervorrufen. Augsburg: Projektgruppe Wirtschaftsinformatik des Fraunhofer FIT (2020). doi: 10.24406/fit-n-581326.
    • Steele RG, Hall JA, Christofferson JL. Conceptualizing Digital Stress in Adolescents and Young Adults: Toward the Development of an Empirically Based Model. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2020 Mar;23(1):15–26. doi: 10.1007/s10567-019-00300-5. PMID: 31392451.
    • Ward AF, Duke K, Gneezy A, Bos MW. Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. JACR 2017 Apr 3;2(2):140–154. doi: 10.1086/691462.
    • Yang CC, Holden SM, Ariati J. Social Media and Psychological Well-Being Among Youth: The Multidimensional Model of Social Media Use. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2021 Sep;24(3):631–650. doi: 10.1007/s10567-021-00359-z. Epub 2021 Jun 24. PMID: 34169391