People undergoing major life events can be at higher risk of physical and psychological distress, including depressive symptoms.26 Even awareness of others’ difficulties might add to stress – while at the same time offering people a chance to give support and comfort to those in the networks.

A number of recent studies have pointed out that emotions may be contagious through social networks.27 28 Stress may be one such contagion. Indeed, awareness of other people’s problems is associated with a range of negative outcomes, such as depression.29 The “cost of caring” associated with awareness of other people’s stressful events may be a negative consequence of social media use because social media may make users more aware of the struggles of those in their network.

To test whether social stress is contagious — that the heightened awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives is related to higher psychological stress in people’s own lives — we use regression analysis to explore the relationship between the use of digital technologies, awareness of major events in other people’s life, and psychological stress. By doing this, we are able to determine if awareness of any specific type of life events is associated with higher or lower levels of psychological stress (Appendix A: Table 1).

Stress is contagious

Awareness of some of the major events happening to their friends was related to stress in people’s own lives. But not all the events were tied to stress. Of course, because our list of twelve events is a sample from a lengthy potential list of stressful major life events, the true effect of the “cost of caring” is possibly much larger than we document here.30

The number of events related to higher stress was greater for women than it was for men. Unsurprisingly, all the events associated with higher levels of stress were events that were likely to negatively impact the lives of friends and family. On average, a woman who is aware that:

  • Someone close to them experienced the death of a child, partner, or spouse scored 14% higher on their own measure of stress, holding other things constant.
  • Someone close has been hospitalized or experienced a serious accident or injury reported 5% higher psychological stress.
  • An acquaintance had been accused of or arrested for a crime scored 11% higher on the stress measure.
  • An acquaintance experienced a demotion or cut in pay reported 9% higher levels of psychological stress.

For men, of the events we explored, only two predicted stress. On average, men who were aware that:

  • Someone close to them had been accused of or arrested or a crime reported 15% higher on our measure of psychological stress.
  • An acquaintance had experienced a demotion or pay cut at work report 12% higher stress.

For both men and women, we found no relationship between their own stress (higher or lower levels) and awareness of more positive (but generally still stressful) events in their friends’ lives, such as an engagement or marriage.

People can become aware of undesirable events in the lives of friends and family through a variety of means. Digital technologies are only one new way that people become aware of these events.

It is clear from this analysis that the cost of caring is particularly felt by women. This is a result of both the larger number of events related to women’s stress, and the higher level of awareness that women tend to have of major events in the lives of people around them. Controlling for other factors, in the unlikely example that a women is aware of all of the events we covered in the survey, she would typically score 32% higher than the average woman on our measure of perceived stress. A man would score 27% higher than the average man.

The joy of missing out

There is one other factor to note in our findings. We found that women who were aware that an acquaintance — someone not very close to them – had experienced the death of a child, partner or spouse, reported lower levels of psychological stress. This is the opposite of how women feel when aware that someone close to them suffered the same experience. At first glance, this finding might be interpreted as somewhat uncaring — perhaps a sign of “schadenfreude,” or the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. In fact, this finding is more likely to be an extension of the cost of caring. It could be seen as “the joy of missing out.” When women see more-distant acquaintances struggling with stressful events, it might have the effect of inducing relief that this particular event has not happened to someone closer to them. It is a reminder that the lives of close friends/family could, after all, be much worse. Controlling for other factors, the joy of missing out was typically associated with a score that was about 6% lower on our scale of perceived stress.