Regis study: Social media may hold key to stress recovery

Biology research finds social media helps key population rebound from stress


In college, it’s a common phenomenon.

An exam finishes and a group of flustered students files out of the classroom. Some students debrief about the test, but most pull out their phones and head straight for social media. 

The latter response may prompt eyerolls from some, but a Regis biology study suggests social media could be exactly what students need to recover from a stressful event.

Alongside Associate Professor Jay Campisi, nine Regis biology students published a study in the journal Physiology and Behavior that provides answers on a critical topic in the digital age: social media as coping strategy. “I think this is really one of the first studies, if not the first study, looking at social media as a coping mechanism,” Campisi said. 

The study — begun in spring 2018 with Regis undergraduate test subjects — found that immediately after an acutely stressful event, those who were instructed to use social media recovered more quickly than those instructed to read quietly. Heart rate, blood pressure and prevalence of the stress hormone cortisol all returned toward normal levels faster for the students who were told to use social media than for those who were told to read.

Cooking Up Stress

To test the response to stress, the research team concocted an activity that would make college-age students’ skin crawl enough to significantly heighten stress. They settled on a test common to the scientific community but worthy of some full-grown adults’ nightmares: a five-minute, notes-free speech in front of two expressionless student “judges,” followed by five minutes of mental math exercises.

“What you get is a full-blown stress response,” said Campisi. “It’s hard to talk for five minutes when no one’s giving you any feedback.”

As intended, the test did significantly heighten subjects’ stress levels. For the students who were told to peruse social media for the next 15 minutes, heart rates and cortisol levels quickly dropped and continued decreasing. For those who were told to read a copy of National Geographic magazine, heart rates remained elevated 15 minutes later and cortisol levels continued to rise.

Social Media's Potential

To Campisi, the results were unexpected, suggesting social media’s surprising potential to help young people cope with stress. “If anything, I was predicting that social media would elevate blood pressure and elevate heart rate — as it does when I read stuff and see things on my platforms,” he said. “When we think about the negative effects of stress and how we can help people, social media is perhaps an interesting avenue for some.”

Quinn Johnshoy, a 2019 Regis graduate and lead author of the study, said the results prompt some important follow-up questions, such as how individuals who are less inclined toward social media use would respond to the same tests. "I think the results would be different, because the college-age population is very plugged into social media," she said. "But asking a different population to start using Twitter as a coping mechanism might create even more stress for them if Twitter isn't already part of their daily life."