Why Being Constantly Online Stresses You Out, According To A New Study

It’s not just the number of notifications.

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Prone to checking your phone constantly, diving for your laptop at the ding of an email, or refreshing Insta over and over just in case you get a notification? The habit's called "online vigilance"— and a new study says it’s bad for your brain.

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The study, published in Human Communication Research, looked at over 1,800 people across three studies. It found a big link between how much the subjects monitored their online lives and how stressed they were.

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Online vigilance, researchers say, means three things: you’re constantly thinking about the online world, from your Twitter feed to WhatsApp; you’re observing it all the time, with open tabs and a constantly-present phone; and you instantly react to notifications.

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Being online-vigilant has become a way of life for millions of people during the pandemic, and your job could actually require it. But the Human Connections Research study found it majorly stresses out your brain.

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It’s not the amount of emails in your inbox that hurts your brain's coping ability. One of the studies found that even being swamped by notifications isn’t as big a stressor as it might seem.

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But being permanently connected, the scientists found, means you’re more likely to multitask to handle all your info at once. That can overwhelm your brain’s attention centers and make stress skyrocket.

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The brain only has so much attention to go around. Multitasking, according to a 2014 study, actually shrinks an area called the anterior cingulate cortex. That shrinkage could make it harder to make snap decisions.

When people permanently dedicate a considerable part of their cognitive resources to online communication going on 'in the back of their mind,' they no longer have sufficient cognitive resources to deal with situational demands and, thus, feel stressed more quickly.


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A 24/7 connection to your phone can also make your brain hyper-sensitive to notification sounds and signals. That can make you upset, panicky, or guilty if you don’t respond to them quickly.

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Thinking constantly about being online, even if you’re nowhere near your phone, was the biggest problem. A lot of us live half-online, thinking about the next push notification or who the main character on Twitter is, and science says that strains the brain’s coping capacity.

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There's no data on whether this stress is permanent, or if it might affect your brain in the long term. But it's a good motivation to take some time out from your online life to reset this thought pattern — at least for a few hours.