Stress on Screen

Words by Kelly Powell | Illustration by Mark Tabar

When virtual reality invades reality, anxiety often rears its ugly head.

A mother and her children, a nine-year-old boy and six-year-old girl, sit around the dinner table. The kids’ attention is focused on the meal in front of them. But the mother’s attention remains on the phone in front of her—Facebook begs for her focus, instant gratification being found in status updates, relationship notifications and photos of others’ kids. She regrets every scroll, but minus stopping to show her children a cute photo or two, she is silent.

“I should have been asking them how their day went,” says Lindsay Rice, Kent State Communications and Marketing graphic designer.

In this battle between social media and face-to-face sociality, only one can win. No matter which side one stands on, the playing field is the same. Studies show that mere placement of an inactive phone between two people suggests divided attention. When this occurs, cell phone usage, and more specifically, social media participation, can become dangerous.

Mady Mehler, a sophomore studying fashion design, recognizes this trap.

“When you meet friends, and they have these beautiful Instagram pages, you’re kind of intimidated,” she says. “You’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, they have this beautiful, sparkling life—can I live up to that?”

With the ever-growing popularity of apps such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, more millennials are finding themselves logging in, but, in turn, they are finding themselves checking out. According to a Kent State study completed by associate professors Jacob Barkley and Andrew Lepp, students who used a cell phone more often scored significantly higher on the Beck Anxiety Inventory, a clinical measure of apprehension.

Barkley and Lepp asked more than 500 students surveyed the purpose of their smart phone usage, and the top two answers they received were boredom relief and maintenance of social connections. Lepp says it’s a “which came first” scenario.

“Either spending time on the phone is creating this relationship,” he says. “Or it’s the other way around—maybe people who are already not feeling good about themselves are turning to the phone for relief out of desperation that it might make them feel better.

For Rice, time on her phone can mean surveillance of the past when the present isn’t enough. And sometimes, she’s not the one to seek it out.

“I know I use [social media] differently if I’m happy,” she says. “Everything seems to be happy and upbeat, but when I get depressed, it adds to it because I’m looking at pictures of old relationships or their new relationships. It just compounds it.”

Taking a couple of minutes, she posts a photo of her dog who just passed away on Facebook. She types out a caption, remembering the best things about her pet, and hits upload, ready to let her friend list know about the upsetting incident. The next time she logs in, she is notified that not only did her ex-wife comment on it, but her ex’s new wife has replied as well. Rice hasn’t spoken to her ex in more than two years. Her mood instantly shifts. Just seeing the names online changes the trajectory of her day.

“I want to be happy for everybody, but sometimes it’s hard,” she says. “Especially if their life is abbreviated—they’re only showing the good stuff, even though you know there is bad stuff.”

This phenomenon can be explained by the study completed by Lepp and Barkley. The team measured subjective well-being and quality of life in correlation with screen time, and their results were the same across the board. People who were constantly plugged in felt dissatisfied with their off-screen lives.

In early interviews, researchers asked students how they felt after using their devices for long periods of leisure time. The most popular response was a scratch of the chin, a tilt of the head and the phrase, “When I think about it, I feel kind of stressed.” That makes 80 percent of interviewed students. Meanwhile, those who sought proactivity—practicing a sport, learning an instrument, perfecting a life skill—felt positivity at the close of their leisure time.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“You hear a lot of people hypothesize that your self-worth and affirmation in large part is coming from other people’s reactions to how your present yourself on social media.” – Andrew Lepp[/perfectpullquote]
Mehler sits in her residence hall on a Saturday night, switching between different tabs on her computer. She spends some time on a Pinterest link describing a new trend in the fashion industry, clicking through every photo in the gallery, soaking up as much information as she can.


Although she has been formally sewing since the seventh grade, constructing her own Homecoming dresses as a high schooler, she feels a quick pang of insecurity. Her train of thought tells her she can always better herself. She runs through scenarios of how she, too, can produce, incorporate and engage in the same ways. Her business is always up for shaping.

“[This engagement] worries me,” Lepp says. “You hear a lot of people hypothesize that your self-worth and affirmation in large part is coming from other people’s reactions to how your present yourself on social media.”

Timing is everything. There are consequences to the setting where one opens their apps. Barkley says if one is sitting in class or meant to be studying, lower academic performance is almost a given. What may seem like multitasking can actually be a strong predictor of anxiety. One of the strongest indicators of them all is one putting their smartphone next to their pillow, able to be pulled out of a deep sleep by a simple ‘ping’ from a text or tweet.

“It’s an extension of you,” Barkley says. “It’s possible that people that are more naturally anxious feel compelled to check their phone more often. They need to know what everybody’s doing.”

Barkley also mentioned stories of disengagement similar to Rice’s dinner table scenario.

“You see this scenario of people out at Ray’s at a four top,” he says. “Everyone’s got their cell phone out and they’re checking that. What should be a relaxing environment, sitting down with your friends to have a beer, can be stressful because you worry about what you’re not doing instead of getting that little burst of relaxation that you need.”

That’s where FOMO, or fear of missing out, comes into play. Interfering with face-to-face social interactions, those who spend time monitoring their alternate options have a difficult time maintaining a full presence. By splitting time between the apps and the acquaintances, the likelihood of depression increases. Constant attention to social media platforms paints a desperate picture of anticipation of something better.

For Mehler, sometimes the pressure mounts within the first couple of posts.

She sits on a Kent State PARTA bus on the way from Twin Towers to Starbucks and pulls out her cell phone. Her thumb scrolls over the screen as she brings up Instagram and begins to travel down a long line of captured experiences. When she encounters photos of her boyfriend’s tattoo work, she feels proud, double-tapping it in affirmation. But when a stream of photos of classmates abroad make their way into her feed, although she’s been able to drop a pin in Austria, Germany and Spain, she still feels a wave of anxiety. Her mind tells her she should be out there studying, too. Because of the innovative nature of her major, Mehler feels a tendency to compare not just herself, but her products, to those that others post about.

“I’m always creating stuff, and I’m always selling,” she says of her company, Sultrie Fashion. “But I think, ‘Should I be doing more? Should I be joining clubs? Should I be doing fashion shows?’ Maybe [the project I see] is the only thing the person has ever worked on, but I don’t know that. From social media, we see this pristine lens into people’s lives, and it’s hard to tell what’s real.”

Maintaining a presence on those websites is a constant upkeep, and it has shown to take a toll on most. Not only do students feel obligated to project an image of themselves, they feel entitled to receive positive feedback from their peers that they feel is reflective of their efforts.

“Students would mention that they would feel upset if somebody didn’t like their post or if somebody said something negative about what they posted,” Barkley says. “There’s such a sheer volume of tweets and posts and texts and Snapchats and all of that other stuff—in order to keep up with that, it can feel overwhelming.”

Rice makes the decision to get a new tattoo. She is feeling uncertain about the rest of the weekend, but she knows this is something she wants to do. Some moments later, “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” is inked onto her right arm. Her mind slows down a bit, revelling in the way it turned out. The tattoo lifts her spirits, and she wants people to know. She snaps a photo of the artwork. Her social media post is almost immediately met with a text. A friend asks her how Rice dares to get that tattoo when she was well aware that was her idea. Rice sinks. She wanted it for her own well-being, deliberately having it face inward on her arm so she can take refuge in it.

Lepp says this type of usage of the device strips away face-to-face social relations. In a recent study he and Barkley conducted, they monitored the perception of how close participants felt to their friends and parents. Those who embraced the virtual world neglected the physical world and therefore, scored lower on the test. Digital nativism has a part in that—the ‘uncritical acceptance of most technological and scientific advancements’ seems to create more problems than solutions.

But despite all of the downfalls, there are some instances where positivity wins. Attention to the perks—communication, sharing, creativity—allow wiggle room for joy.

“I genuinely want to share my experiences,” Mehler says. “I use [my Instagram] as a mini-portfolio. I don’t really care so much about the selfies and the likes. It feels good, but I think it’s ultimately secondary.”

Lepp agrees. A thorough reflection of one’s screen time is helpful for everyone, especially those that tend to be locked in for greater periods of time. As long as usage is spaced out, he says, there is plenty of room for life to happen in between the likes.