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College students might be known for their technological savvy—seamlessly integrating email, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and other messaging services into their social lives—but they too can succumb to an unhealthy fixation with the communication tools, a new study suggests.
The psychological state consisting of the preoccupation and urge to respond quickly to message-based communications from others is known as telepressure.
Northern Illinois University psychology professors Larissa Barber and Alecia Santuzzi coined the term in a 2015 study that demonstrated workers who feel high levels of telepressure linked to employment-related communications are more likely to report burnout, a feeling of being unfocused, health-associated absenteeism and diminished sleep quality.
Their new study, published in the latest edition of the journal, Stress and Health, demonstrates that telepressure related to social interactions also can result in negative outcomes. The researchers showed even tech savvy college students can be vulnerable to telepressure’s negative effects, particularly when they are juggling jobs and school.
The researchers surveyed 241 college students twice during a single semester. About one-third of those students were employed, with most working fewer than 30 hours a week.
Students initially experiencing high levels of telepressure-related stress were found in populations of both employed and non-employed students. But working students with high levels of telepressure related to social interactions were more likely to later suffer consequences that reached beyond perceived stress.
“Among employed students, telepressure was more strongly related to more negative outcomes such as stress, burnout and poor sleep habits, and these students also were more likely to report dissatisfaction with their work-life balance,” Barber said.
“The new study demonstrates that telepressure extends beyond work emails and other employment-specific contexts,” she added. “Individuals feel the need to respond quickly to technology-based messages, even in their general social relationships.”
Importantly, the researchers found employed students did not experience overall higher levels of telepressure than their non-employed counterparts. Unemployed students report just as much telepressure as those who were working. However, employed students experience more costs than non-employed peers to their psychological health and well-being as a result of attempting to stay connected, the researchers said.
“There was a consistent trend of telepressure having stronger relationships with strain and well-being outcomes among employed students as compared with non-employed students,” Santuzzi said. “So the costs of staying connected to one’s social network may be more detrimental to college students with jobs.”
“Engaging in multiple roles—student, employee, friend—taxes personal resources, which can increase strain when resources are not efficiently allocated,” Barber added. “Compared with non-employed peers, working students have fewer hours to devote to both school and social demands.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of American adults ages 18 to 29 have smartphones allowing for Internet connection. The experience among individuals who feel the need to respond quickly to technology-based messages, even in their general social relationships, arises from both social influences and individual differences, the researchers said.
“Students who report more telepressure are more likely to perceive norms in their social environment that encourage quick response times,” Santuzzi said. “Additionally, our study indicates students who experience more telepressure tend to have lower self-control, are more self-consciousness and have a fear of missing out.”
Because managing technology communications is a persistent issue in the general workforce, the NIU psychologists suggest college students would benefit from professional development training programs designed to help them manage technology to reduce stress.
“Developing strategies for healthy technology-boundary management during college could assist students with transitioning to modern-workplace realities of managing both technological work and non-work demands,” Barber said.
She added that students themselves gave the psychologists the idea for their latest study. When she discussed the initial workplace telepressure study in class, “Many students said, ‘I know exactly what you mean,’ and indicated they felt telepressure from friends and family, too,” Barber said.
So she and Santuzzi turned their attention to current college students, a generation raised on technology-related communication.