How does social media impact college students’ mental health?  

September 27, 2023

How does social media impact college students’ mental health?  

Amaura Kemmerer, LICSW 
Executive Vice President of Client Engagement 

Technology has advanced immensely over the last few decades, drastically changing the lives of college students. The dawn of desktop and laptop computers made typewriters obsolete, and mobile/smartphones eliminated the need for landlines in residence halls. While these devices can generally enhance the learning experience for students, the rise in prominence of social media in their lives and having constant access to content shared by their peers can be problematic for college students. Specifically, young adults and teens who often compare themselves to others while scrolling through social media posts, which can negatively affect their mental health.  

Facebook, a social networking pioneer, launched in 2004 with just 650 Harvard University students and has skyrocketed to over 3 billion worldwide users today. Several other social channels have emerged and grown in popularity among college students since then, including Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, where individuals can share photos, videos, and text. However, mental health challenges among young adults and adolescents have grown along with the expansion of social media and other social platforms. A study from Bocconi University and Tel Aviv University reveals that college-wide access to Facebook led to an increase in severe depression by 7% and anxiety disorders by 20%. Another study showed that spending more time on social media is correlated to lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression. (Nazari, A., Hosseinnia, M., Torkian, S. et al.) 

Authors of a 2019 study using data from large-scale community samples concluded there was little impact between technology use and mental health in adolescents. However, the study was re-run on the same data sets, this time dividing up the different types of technology – the previous one lumped social media together with other forms of screentime, such as watching T.V. It also examined individuals by gender rather than grouping them together. The revised study revealed that social media has a significant negative impact on mental health, especially for girls. 

Psychologist Jean Twenge, author of the book Generations, has been studying data on teen mental health for years. In 2017, she noticed a shocking trend. Rates of anxiety and depression have increased significantly in recent years, and she attributes the downward spiral to the rise of something else: smartphones. “Smartphones were used by the majority of Americans by 2012, and that’s the same time loneliness increases. That’s very suspicious,” she says.  

Some research suggests there is a correlation between time spent on social media and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety in young adults because frequent users may replace in-person interactions with social media. Additionally, constant exposure to selective and edited posts on social media may cause young adults to think their peers are happier and more successful than them, igniting feelings of isolation. 

If social media has the potential to be harmful for college students’ mental health, what can students do to protect their well-being while using social media? Cutting out all social media use is not feasible for most college students, since it is the main form of communication for Gen Z. There are benefits to social networking, too; communicating with new friends on social channels helps form bonds with one another, and it is also a way to stay connected with friends and family back home.  

Experts say there are habits students can develop to keep their social media use in check to prevent themselves from getting too consumed by their social apps. Dr. Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, assistant professor at Duquesne’s School of Nursing, suggests students set limits on social media for themselves and take time to unplug. “According to the Attention Restoration Theory, getting our vitamin D while enjoying the peaceful moment in a park or seeing the crashing waves of the ocean can serve as a restorative reset button, which leaves people more alert, engaged, and rejuvenated,” Dr. Nguyen Steers told Forbes.  

Mental health professionals also recommend that students who feel like social media is negatively impacting their mental health seek help from a mental health professional, such as at their university’s counseling center. For students who feel like their social media use is having a negative impact on their well-being – or if they’re feeling down for another reason – the resources offered through Christie Campus Health can be an important addition to the services already provided through a college/university. Christie offers customized solutions for college students to address a wide range of needs. Christie’s services include a 24/7 clinical support line; psychiatric prescribing; Navigators to assist with referrals and specialty care; science-backed meditation and mindfulness tools through the Headspace app; and SilverCloud, a self-directed and clinically validated Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT). Contact Christie Campus Health to learn more.  

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