Study examines social media’s impact on student mental health, interpersonal activity

By Jessica Bonheur

In today’s fast-paced society, social networking has evolved beyond cell phone calls and text messaging and proliferated onto the Internet. Most teens and college students now have at least one account on the sites Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Tumblr or other popular forms of social media, like Google Chrome and LinkedIn.

A new mtvU study in collaboration with the Associated Press and the Jed Foundation reported that 90 percent of college students sampled said they visited at least one social networking website in the past week.

The results held that the new era of incessant communication can cause friction and mental uncertainty for students.

“For college students, constant digital communication carries an additional layer of complexity, often leading to misunderstandings, confusion and uncertainty,” the text of the study read.

The study goes so far as to suggest that the very nature of communication has shifted in the era of social networking, with a majority of students reporting that they had had a fight without physically speaking to another party.

“Nearly 70 percent [of surveyed students] have had an argument exclusively via text message,” the study states.

This study was released as part of the Half of Us Campaign by mtvU and the Jed Foundation to examine “how technology is impacting college students’ emotional health,” according to the campaign’s website. The Half of Us Campaign “is designed to improve emotional health and prevent suicide among college students,” it states.

The study also sought to examine how students use social media in the categories of seeking help/suicide, misunderstandings/conflicts, being connected vs. feelings of isolation, and stress and happiness. The study sheds light on how social media tools have become the most common form of communication among young people.

Beyond a shift in the parameters of possibility for how young people argue, the study found that students have changed how they empathize and console each other, as well. Nearly four in 10 students reported they had “ask[ed] for help with a serious personal issue or let a friend know they are upset via text message.”

The mtvU study certainly indicates that in-person interaction likely has the most positive effects on student well-being, in addition to highlighting how digital communication can be confounding based on its ambiguity.
“At least half of the time when college students read emails/text messages or posts on social networking sites, 48 percent report that they are unsure about whether the sender was serious or joking.”

The study also illustrates how social networking has changed how people keep tabs of one another, and some would likely argue for the worst. “Sixty-one percent of students say they have found themselves frequently tracking someone’s social networking site,” the study suggests.

With the capability to link together individuals from all over the world, social networking tools have, however, have helped 85 percent of students feel more connected to others, the study states. However, the results also show that one in seven say that, while they may be more connected to those around them, they are also further away. This seventh stated that “social networking sites increase feelings of isolation.”

The study also suggests that, with the constant presence of social media, young people are changing how they spend their time. A majority of students reported spending two to six hours online per day, and “one-third are online for more than six hours daily.”

To understand the prevalence of social networking usage at the University of Massachusetts, 20 undergraduate students were randomly selected and surveyed about their social networking usage. All but one of the students stated that they possessed at least one active social networking site account. Seventy-five percent, or 15 of the UMass students, answered that they checked their online social networking accounts daily, while 40 percent of those that admitted to using their networking accounts daily admitted to actually checking the account more than three times a day for updates and messages.

The number of “friends” the individuals surveyed had in their social network site ranged from 0-900. On average the students had about 343.05 friends on their friends list. Most individuals stated their reason for keeping a social networking account was “to keep in contact with people.” One student said, “I was forced to make one,” while another simply stated “pictures.” Long gone are the days where direct face-to-face communication is the main form of communicating with others. Social networking websites and tools are here to stay.

Jessica Bonheur can be reached at [email protected]