Experiencing stress is a normal part of living. It’s a biological reaction – the body’s way of telling us something isn’t right. At healthy levels, stress acts as a motivator, helping us stay focused and more effectively accomplish tasks. Although technology has many benefits, it has also blurred the boundaries of time and space, which has made stress management more challenging.
Technology-related stress, or “technostress,” is a common experience as we all try to adapt to the introduction of new technologies. For better or worse, change is stressful, and technology is changing how we live every day. Whether adult, child or adolescent, technology can keep us in a state of high alert, feeling habitually compelled to connect, share and multitask. The sources of technostress include a mixture of internal factors (e.g., perceptions, level of technology use and coping skills) and external factors, such as one’s support system, uncontrollable events (e.g., cyberbullying) or dealing with technology itself.
Remember, technology is a tool. Although some technologies, such as the internet, electronic communication and productivity tools, are nearly impossible to avoid, we still have some choices about the extent to which many technologies affect our lives. And, some technologies can help us live our lives better, get stronger and be more productive. In this way, technology is both part of the problem and part of the solution to dealing with stress.
You observe a middle or high school student being irritable, angry and lethargic. It might be normal hormonal fluctuation, but some students exhibit such emotions because of decision fatigue – the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long duration of decision making. Technology has multiplied the number of options and decisions we face every moment. On a student’s smartphone, for example, they must decide whether to check their texts, watch a video, post on social media, check for new snaps, take a photo or video or avoid the phone altogether. Across multiple devices, together with offline decisions, both students and adults navigate hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions a day. What to do? What not to do? So many decisions can be exhausting.
Decision fatigue may also explain why some students make irrational and unreasonable decisions: stress and fatigue have compromised their judgment. Sometimes students randomly make a choice just to shut down the stressful decision-making process. We may interpret this as students being reckless or acting impulsively, without attention to potential consequences, when, in fact, they may have been doing this ad nauseum.
Conversely, decision fatigue can lead to “analysis paralysis” when there are just too many options and we can’t get ourselves to settle on just one. In this case, we may be too tired to compare the various aspects of numerous options. This may present itself as procrastination or, worse, being irresponsible.
Everyone’s Having Fun Without Me
FOMO or “fear of missing out” is the worry that others elsewhere are having more fun or that you are missing an experience. It can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, envy, insecurity and loneliness. Not only are some children and adolescents stressed about missing offline activities such as parties or other functions, they also worry about not being included in online activities. FOMO might mean that you weren’t tagged in a social media post or included in an online group chat or snap. FOMO might happen when you see a photo on Instagram of a bunch of your friends together, and you weren’t there, intentionally or not. Some students experience FOMO when an online discussion or sharing focuses on an unfamiliar topic (e.g., a popular show everyone else seems to be watching).
FOMO has been around forever, although it seems to be escalating with real-time, location-based social media tools.
Students (and adults) go out of their way to share information online that depicts them in a positive light. Most people share only life highlights – their achievements, successes, promotions and awesome experiences – and leave out the rest. This can easily create a warped perception of others and, when compared with one’s own life, leave one feeling deprived, unlucky or like a failure. One of the worst-case examples is how technology has increased the proliferation of unrealistic body images, especially among girls. Students use filters that automatically remove blemishes, or apps designed to “nip and tuck” photos. Some spend hours taking hundreds of selfies then manipulating just the right one before posting. The final stroke of deception is a caption that indicates the image is normal or typical when it is not. Over time, the effects of this not only include stress but may eventually contribute to poor self-confidence, distorted body image and disordered eating.
Tech to the Rescue
When helping students with stress, all of our traditional counseling approaches apply. And, as with anything, there’s also an app for that – portable stress management tools with a range of features. From providing detailed information on the effects of stress on the body, to tracking stress levels, to helping students learn stress management skills such as deep breathing, apps can provide a sophisticated and immersive experience on the go or on demand. Many stress-reduction apps are available across common platforms including Android, Apple and Kindle. Google these and find the right one for you or your students:
Virtual Hope Box
Take a Break
Virtual reality (VR) is becoming more widely accessible due to falling costs of hardware and software. VR allows students to enter a computer-generated, interactive, simulated environment. A VR application can be download to a smartphone and used with an inexpensive viewer such as Google Cardboard or used directly with a VR headset such as the Oculus Go. VR can make learning about and practicing stress management a game-changer for students. VR can provide many of the same benefits of learning in an otherwise inaccessible physical environment – and sometimes without the accompanying safety risks.
Here are a few VR apps to get you or your students started:
Other apps to help keep stress in check include ways to practice organizational skills, mindfulness, task management and even act as a virtual personal coach.
Indeed, technology has ushered in great opportunities and tools that can help students more effectively and efficiently achieve. The same technologies, when used excessively or inappropriately, can become a barrier. School counselors can be pivotal in helping students use technology intentionally, with focus and balance. In some cases, technology can supplement how we already help students establish healthy practices, boundaries and methods for meeting goals.
Russell A. Sabella, Ph.D., is a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. He is the author of numerous articles and the author or co-author of several books on school counseling, technology, stress management and sexual harassment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.