What I learned by testing my stress levels on social media
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A woman on her phone on London's tube (Credit: Getty)
Our social media producer Sophia Smith Galer monitored her stress levels and social media usage for a week – here’s what she found out.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly stressed-out person. I enjoy my job, have a fairly 9-5 working life and spend the rest of my waking hours doing my best to go out and have fun. I’m a social media producer, meaning that I run accounts on social networking sites and produce multimedia content for them. I’m online all the time, yes, but I’ve never seen that as unusual or stressful; it goes hand-in-hand with being a digital journalist and it seems like a natural progression for somebody who spent much of her adolescence online.

That’s how I used to describe myself until I spent a week testing my stress levels and found out that they’re actually quite high. I’ve spent the last month leading #LikeMinded, BBC Future’s month-long season on social media and its impact on our mental well-being, and it’s made me question my relationship with my smartphone. Turning it on in the morning and staying wired is as integral to my life as clothes and food. Is that habit somehow linked to why I seem to be so stressed?

In the pursuit of knowledge, I allowed myself to be a human guinea pig for one week, revealing my stress levels and social media usage to my team and, now, to you. I also managed to persuade other social media producers to get involved to get a broader idea of our relationships with our phones, both within and outside our working life. Importantly, it showed me how I compare to other people – and that’s probably what shocked me the most.

The test

I used three different monitors to probe my mental well-being and social media use over the week; a Pip, Moment and Checky. The Pip is a little device that measures your stress levels via your fingertips, something that’s known as your electradermal activity. Moment is an app that measures how much time you spend on your phone, and Checky keeps an eye on how many times you check your phone every day. Here are the results from my Pip, alongside those of three other producers:  Dhruti Shah from BBC News, Eleanor Dunn from BBC Entertainment News and Elie Gordon who manages social media for BBC Earth.

Our Pip Stresstracker thinks that Eleanor Dunn from Entertainment News is the most chilled out person in social (Credit: Sophia Smith Galer)

Our Pip Stresstracker thinks that Eleanor Dunn from Entertainment News is the most chilled out person in social (Credit: Sophia Smith Galer)

An important caveat here is that the ‘experiment’ is obviously not especially scientific; for one thing, we had no control and very few participants. This whole test was more about self-appraisal and to find out something new about ourselves.

I was the second-most stressed. The week in which I ran the test was a fairly normal one workwise, so I’m not sure why I was less stressed on Tuesday and Thursday than Monday and Wednesday; Tuesday might have had something to do with a team pub lunch. I spent my Saturday out and about and my Sunday at home and, despite not working, I was just as stressed as I was during the week.

I learnt three main lessons:

1. There is no weekend effect

I had naively expected that my stress levels would go down over the weekend, but mine didn’t – nor did Dhruti’s or Elie’s. Eleanor meanwhile, was very zen – something I put down to all the yoga she does.

Another colleague, Mauro Galluzzo from BBC Money, also did the experiment, but over a different period – the week over Christmas, in which he worked every day. His stress levels stayed pretty much the same throughout, which I think is odd, as you would imagine Christmas to be more relaxed. He was checking BBC Money’s Facebook page every day, however.

My weekend results could be explained by the fact that I spend much of my free time as wired as at work, checking personal emails, posting content on my personal accounts and glancing through newsfeeds. I spent the least amount of time on my phone on Sunday, but plenty of time on my laptop instead. On Saturday I spent as much time on my phone as I did during the working week, even though I was out all day and evening. As expected, my social media use is as much a part of the fabric of my free time as it is my working life.  

I’m presented with two likelihoods: I either go online to escape from stress, or my time online is making me stressed. Many studies show that stress contributes to a long list of physical and mental health problems. Could I be doing more to loosen some of that mental strain on the weekend?

Many social producers check their phones over 80 times per day (Credit: Getty)

Many social producers check their phones over 80 times per day (Credit: Getty)

  2. I check my phone a LOT

Eleanor checks her phone around 70 times a day on average. Incredibly, Dhruti only checks hers between seven or eight times a day; her speedy email responses make me think she’s on her laptop a lot instead, and in many face-to-face meetings. Research shows that young people check their phones approximately 85 times a day, so Eleanor’s use is average, as is Elie who showed similar results.

Mine tells a different story. On Saturday I checked in a whopping 154 times; my daily average for my working week was 129 and on Sunday I managed a comparatively paltry 76 times. Bear in mind that I check my phone this often simultaneously to laptop use – during the week I’m on my laptop at least six hours a day.

I do so this often in part because I get lots of notifications. Running nine social media accounts across my work and personal life means I’m inundated. I talk to my friends on Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. I even get phantom vibrations where I think I’ve felt or heard my phone perk up when it hasn’t.

I’m less worried about this discovery, as I’ve realised that the number of times you check your phone doesn’t correlate with screen time; my repetitive checking is hopefully a sign of habitual use rather than a problem per se. On Tuesday I spent the longest amount of time on my phone – 4 hours and 34 minutes – but it was the weekday I checked my phone the least, and I was less stressed than usual too. Screen time is another issue – something that we covered in our Facebook Live with two leading psychologists looking into whether we should, or shouldn’t, be worried about the time spent online – that’s worth considering here. One day Elie Gordon managed a gargantuan 6 hours 11 minutes, even though she checked her phone only 88 times. 

Smartphone use makes us feel happier, but only up to a point (Credit: Getty Images)

Smartphone use makes us feel happier, but only up to a point (Credit: Getty Images)

3. I go on my phone for escapism

I’m confident that a lot of my social media use – especially over the weekend or just before bed – is down to me trying to forget personal problems and worries. Maybe this could be seen as a component of technological addiction, but I know that I’m not alone in this; when I looked at social media addiction I referred to a study that found smartphone use makes us feel happier, up to a point. I love Twitter for staying up to date with news, I love Instagram to see what my friends are up to and to exercise my photography skills. In fact, that I find so much happiness on my smartphone is probably why I find my job so fulfilling.

I spoke to Maggy Vaneijk, BBC Three’s Social Media Manager. She’s just released a self-help book about her quest for happiness “in a world defined by her depression,” and I asked her how her social media use could fit in with mental well-being.

“I think your social media feeds are what you make of them,” she says. She used to do what many of us still do; getting caught up in the comparison trap on Instagram, lurking on her boyfriends’ ex-girlfriends’ profiles. She’s since turned her feeds into a safe space with “lots of golden retrievers” – and thinks that “if you scroll through and feel yourself getting down and miserable you need to do something about it.

“Follow people you admire but don’t feel jealous about. Since embracing the mental health community I’ve found loads more like-minded spirits, not just people who want to show off their engagement rings.”

Despite this, she thinks she is online too much; she enforces detoxes on holiday but finds it hard to enforce day to day. “You need to be able to be reactive to do your job well.”

What now?

Just like Maggy, I think I’d be worse at my job if I wasn’t constantly consuming social content. But if #LikeMinded has taught me anything, it’s that the point where excessive social media use tips into a pathological problem is hazy. One questionnaire psychologists use to figure out whether you have a social media addiction has two telling statements, which are certainly relevant to me: “I use social media to forget about personal problems” and “I spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or planning how to use it”. The whole point of my job is to hook people on BBC Future and BBC Culture’s content online; isn’t it therefore likely I get hooked in too?

If social media usage is causing undue stress, then maybe people like me should start looking at our jobs a little more like professional wine-tasters do. We’re spending an awful lot of time online in a way that has been linked to mental health problems and even addiction. Why aren’t all wine-tasters alcoholics? They find a work-life balance, have boundaries in place and understand where their limits are. They even take seemingly small measures like spitting wine out into a nearby bucket.

I’m really pleased that I did this experiment. Comparing myself to other people has made me self-appraise and think about how I could de-stress. As part of #LikeMinded we’re asking you, our readers, what tips you have for a healthy and happy life on social media. We hope this has encouraged you to think about your own online habits. As for me, something tells me that I won’t be putting my phone down anytime soon.  


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