Analysis: research finds that social media technostress and poor self-control leads to lower grades and reduced wellbeing for students

By Eoin Whelan and Willie Golden, University of Galway

It has long been recognised that social media use distracts students from their academic work and can have a negative impact on their wellbeing. In our research, we have focused on the phenomenon of technostress to explain why this is the case.

Technostress refers to the stress individuals experience from their inability to cope with the demands of information technology. Students often experience technostress from using social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, which in turn diminishes their self-control. The results of our study shows this combination of technostress and poor self-control leads to lower grades and reduced wellbeing.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Brendan O'Connor Show, Alexandra Ryan of on which social media platform is for which age group and what apps are taking over

The research was conducted using survey data collected from 450 University of Galway students. The aim of the study was to discover practical measures that students, higher education providers and tech companies might employ to support student achievement and wellbeing.

Six key social media stressors have been identified in studies. They are:

  • Social overload - when users feel that they are experiencing excessive social demands online
  • Disclosure - the feeling of getting too much information
  • Pattern - the stress experienced when the individual adapt their use of social media to conform to others' use patterns i.e.. keeping up with friends’ postings
  • Complexity – the feeling that the social media platform is technically difficult or complicated to navigate
  • Uncertainty – constant changes and updates to the applications
  • Invasion – leaving individuals feeling that their personal life is being invaded by applications in situations such as holidays.

Social media can be a valuable tool to assist student learning, but there is a cognitive cost. Our study found that when students are using social media for both social and academic purposes interchangeably, that cognitive cost mounts. High social media use amplifies the effect of stressors and depletes a key stress-busting tool; self-control.

Physiological studies have demonstrated that stress hormones increase with extensive exposure to IT applications

It’s not all in our heads. Physiological studies have demonstrated that stress hormones cortisol and alpha amylase increase with extensive exposure to IT applications. Our study identifies self-control as a key tool in achieving goals, academic or otherwise. Like muscles, self-control requires energy to perform but depletes when exerted. Stressing self-control resources damages the ability to override subsequent acts requiring self-control, a phenomenon called 'ego depletion'.

For example, a student may want to perform well in forthcoming exams and so wants to avoid spending time consuming social media content. An impulse to return to TikTok and Instagram is triggered every time they see another person using such platforms. Controlling these impulses continuously draws strength from their self-control reserves. When these reserves become exhausted and weak, the person is less likely to maintain the self-control needed to avoid wasting time online.

Our findings suggests a heavy reliance on social media for academic purposes only serves to exacerbate this process. For example, if using Snapchat for social purposes generates stress for a student, a switch to using Snapchat intensely to coordinate university assignments will result in less self-control and ultimately poorer academic outcomes.

READ: Can you stop your parents sharing photos of you online?

READ: Do our social media likes reflect what we do and think offline?

For students, the recent adoption of social media for academic purposes needs may conflict with their perceptions of what social media provides them. Indeed, they may feel they never get a break from social media as it has become central to their social and academic lives. This conflict could lead to a lack of focus which strengthens the relationship between stressors and academic outcomes.

Our study confirms previous research which found that ego-depleted students perform significantly worse on tasks based on cognitive ability and fluency. When stressed by exams, students’ self-control performance was less efficient leading to a less healthy lifestyle during the exam period. The phenomenon is familiar to us all: when we are busy and stressed out at work, our healthy eating and fitness regimes tend to take a backseat just when we need them most.

The findings of the study confirm existing studies which suggest university students are particularly susceptible to technostress. We go a step further and show that it is through the process of diminishing self-control over social media that stressors inhibit performance and wellbeing outcomes. Our feelings of technostress bleed out into other areas of our lives, making self-control more difficult generally.

To alleviate technostress, students should separate personal social media use from academic use

Social media users may believe that switching their use to different application or purpose will enable them to cope with social media stressors. However, even a low use of social media for academic purposes will only partially offset the effects of stressors on self-control.

The advice for students? To alleviate technostress, students should separate personal social media use from academic use, rather than continuously switching between the two.

The advice for tech companies, if they don’t want to lose customers to burnout? Embed stress-sensing technologies in devices and use them to alert users to rising stress levels and ‘nudge’ them to less stressful activities. While social media provides efficiencies and is often the preferred mode of interaction by students, educators also have a duty of care to students and need to be aware that using social media for academic purposes is cognitively taxing on students.

Prof Eoin Whelan is Head of Discipline, Business Information Systems at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics at the University of Galway. Prof Willie Golden is Professor of Information Systems at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics at the University of Galway.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ