Technological saints be praised: the Gmail undo send button has arrived (again)!

As reported by USA Today, Google has officially released a Gmail feature that allows you to play takesies backsies with that insulting email about your co-worker with the nacho breath accidentally sent to the HR department — for up to 30 seconds that is.

The optional feature, tested out in a beta form since 2009, will let the user set a delay on any email sent, from five to 30 seconds, during which time the user will be able to stop the email from being released in the first place. The feature isn’t available for those on the mobile version and it isn’t great at remembering its place in line — should you navigate elsewhere on Gmail, even if it’s within the time limit, you won’t be able to prevent any unfortunate meetings about showing the proper respect to Steve who, as we all know, has a glandular problem.

Still, the news has been roundly treated as a godsend for the panicked masses, with plenty commenting on the feature finally being able to take some of the stress out of sending emails. But in reality, those rare slips of the Send button are usually the least of our concerns when it comes to why email can really ramp some of us onto Anxiety Road.

So in the spirit of education, let’s take a look at what exactly the science says about our relationship to email and technology. Have we been driven mad by the constant stream of email we get every day? Or is it a bit more complicated than that?

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The speed with which we’re able to give and receive information from one another, including via email, has led to what many have called a culture of instant gratification. And down that path leads to ruin — supposedly.

"Some people are so impatient and so driven by instant technology that they never unplug, never slow down," wrote Ronald J. Alsop in a 2012 piece for Notre Dame magazine. "They don’t take time for contemplation and relaxation, and, according to some mental health professionals, they are at greater risk for addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, video games and the Internet."

To bolster his point, Alsop leans on the expertise of those who have dealt with addiction. "The hit when you get a good email is like the hit of winning money," David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Connecticut told Alsop. "It provides instant gratification."

It seems apparent to Alsop that the availability of instantaneous information has hijacked the reward center of our brains, turning us into lab rats who can’t stop pressing the button for more sugar/cocaine/Gmail at the cost of meeting our most basic needs of survival and intimacy. This culture of gratification has warped our expectations of work, romance and the future, turning us (by which I mean millennials) into the spoiled, isolated, and perpetually frazzled.

While I certainly don’t disagree that the world as we know it has dramatically changed over even the past decade, I’d also argue that Alsop’s argument has been made in some version or another since the days of the cotton gin. Of course technology changes how we approach the world, but just the same, we adapt technology to suit our needs and desires. And just because things are different, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re worse off in how we interact with one another.

Maybe Facebook turns some of us into narcissistic sociopaths (probably not), but it allows most of us to reach out to people that we never would have been able to before — to bridge connections we would have lost to time in another era.

That said, the question at mind isn’t about whether or not Gmail and Twitter has sucked out our souls, it’s about whether or not they cause us undue amounts of stress, and why.

The Cost of Caring

Make no mistake about it, a lot of us, by most definitions of the word, are obsessed with checking our email. Lunch, brunch or during a taco munch, that glowing email indicator beckons us.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 1801 adult men and women in 2013, focusing on the levels of stress they felt on a daily basis, and whether this stress was tied to the amount of technology the participants utilized. Those surveyed sent or received about 25 emails, to/from about nine different people, a day.

But — but! — there wasn’t a significant negative relationship between stress and technology use found. "Overall, frequent internet and social media users do not have higher levels of stress," the authors of an accompanying report summarizing the study wrote.

The picture is admittedly a little muddled for a certain subset. "Those users who feel more stress are those whose use of digital tech is tied to higher levels of awareness of stressful events in others’ lives," they wrote.

Far from isolating us from one another, many people, particularly women, use technology to keep in touch with greater amounts of people than those who don’t check their email regularly. And the authors theorize that this greater connection leads to unintentional sympathy pangs when those closest to us make public their painful or stressful experiences. This empathic sharing of misery has often been called the "cost of caring."

Of course, as the report notes, this cost comes with plenty of fringe benefits, including a greater sense of trust, feeling more supported and a larger circle of close friends. And likely because women are socialized and encouraged to pursue friendship, it’s usually them who get to reap a pretty great deal.

"Compared with a woman who does not use these technologies, a woman who uses Twitter several times per day, sends or receives 25 emails per day, and shares two digital pictures through her mobile phone per day, scores 21% lower on our stress measure than a woman who does not use these technologies at all," the authors wrote.  

It should be kept in mind that the overall level of stress reported in the survey was pretty low regardless, with a score of around 10 out of 30 on the Perceived Stress Score (PSS). Men did report slightly less stress than women by the way, so there’s that.

The Pew results don’t mean that our typical use of email and other assorted technologies isn't stressing us out, it just means that we’re probably winning out in the end.

But perhaps a little slowing down of our emailing habits could actually make things a lot more relaxing.

Snail Email

Last December, PhD student Kostadin Kushlev and a colleague published a study in Computers in Human Behavior about a rather simple experiment they conducted.

They enlisted 124 people from all walks of life, over a one week period, to either check their emails as frequently as they liked or only to check it three times a day. The order was reversed the next week and along the way, each filled out a daily survey that, among other things, assessed their level of stress.  

"Our findings showed that people felt less stressed when they checked their email less often," said Kushlev in a statement released by the University of British Columbia.

And if anything, people became more productive. "Indeed, although the participants in our study sent and received roughly the same number of emails during both weeks, they reported doing so in approximately 20 percent less time during the week when they checked their email less frequently," Kushlev wrote in the New York Times. "Constantly monitoring our inboxes promotes stress without promoting efficiency." The dramatic results inspired Kushlev himself to switch to a more occasional email checking schedule.

He does note that it was pretty hard for his subjects to switch off, with many who couldn’t help but check in once or twice more times than they should have, but that this only makes the study’s findings all the more compelling. "People find it difficult to resist the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting this temptation reduces their stress," he said.

There’s no doubt that the Gmails and Twitters of our time will only become more woven into the fabric of our lives as time goes along. That trend will, in all likelihood, not turn us into neurotic messes who only live for the high of a prompt email reply. But Kushlev’s study points to the need to strike a balance between our constant searching for information and connection and our habitual need to embrace solitude from the world wide web.

More than an Undo Send button that only works for 30 seconds, it seems that what we really need from our email and other social media apps is an Unplug button, at least one that works for the better part of the day.

Unless that late night work email is really, super duper important, of course.