Is Technology the Friend or Enemy of Stress?

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Technological innovations have always been something of a mixed bag. Some take hold quickly, whilst others never gain traction and simply fade away. And then there’s the emotional effect of technology. It's common to have views about the latest high-tech weaponry, surveillance, or medical innovation. However, we’re even more likely to have opinions about technology when it comes to our everyday lives. Technology has infiltrated and influenced our work and leisure time.

All this begs the question: Has technology made our lives simpler and easier, or has it simply added burdens to our already hectic and stressful lives?

As you read this, chances are that you’re using a technology that wasn’t even invented 30 or 40 years ago. You’re probably using a Wi-Fi connection and reading the article on your laptop or maybe your smartphone. Maybe you’re at home, or sitting in a café, or on some form of transport. You now have a wealth of information and insights at your fingertips. With just a few clicks, you can instantly locate data that would have required laborious and lengthy library searches a few decades ago. In this example, at least, both your life and mine has been made very much easier by technology.

Connectivity concerns

So, what is there to grumble or be concerned about? One argument is that technology is simply a tool. If we choose to pick it up and use it, then we either benefit or we don’t. This may be true when we’re able to exert an influence over what we’re doing, but there are plenty of situations where this is easier said than done. For example, we may accept that using a computer is an essential, everyday activity. What many people are less aware of is that screen light has been shown to affect melatonin production, which may throw off sleep patterns and disrupt deep sleep. The website Digital Responsibility lists various psychological, social, and health issues thought to result from being “overly connected.” It’s these hidden costs that we need to be aware of and account for in our use of technology.

Early research into the psychological impacts of the internet found that internet use caused depression because online relationships were of poorer quality than in-person relationships. People who claimed there was no way to prove such a link quickly attacked such findings. Yet, we don’t need to look far to find examples of how of internet use can be seriously damaging. Cyberbullying is pervasive, and attempts by social media companies to block abuse tend to be easily overcome by abusers setting up fake profiles. However, it is not the technology that gives rise to the distress — it is how it is used and misused.

When times were simpler

Harking back to simpler times may seem appealing during times of high stress, but is it technology that’s at fault? Nostalgia makes us feel warm and comfortable. I’ve still got some of my old vinyl records, but I can also recall times of crushing boredom in my pre-internet days because there seemed so little to do. Yet, the results of a survey undertaken by the University of Cambridge in 2011 revealed a third of people felt overwhelmed by technology. Roughly a third of parents in the survey claimed technology sometimes disrupted family life, and nearly 19 percent of respondents used communication technology for more than seven hours a day.

I can remember having to write an essay in school about whether scientific innovations were always beneficial. I can’t remember what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure that even then I realized it was all about balance. Nothing has changed. Just the other day, I had some dental work done. I was grateful for the technology that enabled a pain-free experience. I drove home in a car that is packed with safety features that I hope will never be used. I sat down and read a book using a device that allows me to choose the font size and illumination level that suit me. So yes, technology has made differences to my own life that are good.

Balance and control

A 2015 article by Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times argued that technology doesn’t necessarily make life more stressful. Depending on how the technology is used, Miller said, you can find evidence that it can increase anxiety and impatience as much as it can increase trust, social support, and close relationships. I’m inclined to agree with the closing statement of that article, which stated, “Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them... Research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.”

However, difficulties appear when our sense of control is undermined, and that’s when stress begins to take its toll. In terms of our everyday lives, there are times, most notably at work, when our sense of control over technology can be challenged and challenging. At home we have a greater say. We can turn off our devices, we don’t have to read and respond to every email, and we can moderate the amount of time spent on social networking sites. Technology can be a tremendous asset, but it’s often our own actions that determine whether technology benefits us or not.

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