Social media offers students a ‘lifeline’ in age of anxiety

New report seeks to better identify healthy and unhealthy use of social media

College students have turned to social media—not to cut themselves off from current events—but to seek connections that boost mental health during this age of coronavirus-induced anxiety and isolation.

Young people “see social media as a lifeline to social support,” says a new report from the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine. 

The study, “Youth Connections for Wellbeing,” encourages educators, mental health professionals and others to draw a line between healthy and unhealthy use of social media. The authors, Mimi Ito, Candice Odgers, and Stephen Schueller, also aim to redirect the debate over social media use and screen time toward how connections made online can help young people feel more confident and less lonely and depressed.

For instance, Black students and young people in the LGBTQ+ community say that social media has connected them with sources of empowerment where they’ve discovered strategies for coping with racism and prejudice, the researchers said.

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Marginalized students find new friendships and social support in “affinity networks,” such as gaming and creative communities. Social media use can also reduce social anxiety in ways that help students build interpersonal skills to enhance offline relationships, the report found.

One student interviewed by the researchers said their connections on Instagram were more willing to share their emotions on the social network. “They’ll actually say, ‘I’m not doing fine,’ the student told the researchers.

A first-year college student adjusting to life away from home told the researchers that Facebook Messenger allows her to keep in close touch with his mother and that she regularly shares videos and memes with her siblings on Instagram.

Bigger impacts on mental health

The research team found that students’ “online risks often mirror offline vulnerabilities.” Therefore, factors such as poverty, discrimination, instability and social marginalization have a greater impact on mental health than does technology.

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Parents can support the emotional well-being of youner teens by offering guidance on the use of social media and the internet. This is far more beneficial than simply restricting access to technology, which can create tension between youth and parents, the researchers say.

Earlier this year,  Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, told University Business that social media, video games and various other online activities were pretty much the only way young people could maintain their social lives under COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

“We have done a good job of terrifying people about screen time,” Ferguson said. “The evidence suggests that screen time in and of itself is not a good predictor of anything and that it’s not poisonous.”

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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