The impact of social media on the mental health of students

Steve West recently gave this presentation to MPs and Peers

The use of social media is increasingly pervasive in the UK and across the globe, particularly in the lives of our students. At present, Facebook has the highest number of users – 32m in the UK, with 1bn people across the world using Facebook in a single day.

Clearly social media brings a number of benefits to its users – enabling connections to be maintained or new networks to be built that would not have otherwise been possible. Social media can also help boost young people’s self-confidence and social skills.

At UWE Bristol, like many other universities, we use social media to help support recruitment and transition to university – sharing information and enabling students to build connections with their peers before they arrive. It is also a great tool in facilitating communications, supporting teaching, and of course it provides a valuable means of maintaining alumni networks.

However, research and user experiences are exposing a highly negative side to social media – in particular the link between social media and challenges to mental health and well-being. With 18-19 year olds spending an average of 2.55 hours a day on social networking sites, this is clearly a major concern.

We already know that mental health is a very important challenge facing the health and education sectors, with one in four people experiencing a mental health problem in any one year. We also know that there are particular circumstances that students face that put them at increased risk in relation to mental health. This is something we have been striving to address at UWE Bristol, introducing modes of delivery for our well-being service that provide an improved outcome for users and also allow us to cope with the increased demand that we have seen across the sector.

There are a number of reasons for this increase in referrals and applications for well-being support, which has been in the region of 50% over the past 5 years. One potential factor we cannot ignore is the use of social media.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research exploring the links between social media and mental health covering a number of areas, including bullying, harassment, self-esteem, negative body image and normalising self-harm.

At UWE Bristol, researchers from our world-leading Centre for Appearance Research have carried out a number of studies in this area, focusing in particular on social comparison theory – where people compare themselves to others to know where they stand. One example, includes investigating the causal effect of Facebook on women’s mood and body image, compared to viewing a body-neutral site. The study found that viewing Facebook had a more negative impact on mood, and for those who had a pre-existing tendency to make more appearance comparisons, ‘spending time on Facebook led to a greater desire to change their face, hair and skin-related features’. Facebook provides a huge range of lifestyle and image social comparison opportunities, and it is different to other sources as the comparison is with direct peers. It is also important to note the significance of reports about the frequency of the ‘comments’ made on Facebook being appearance focused.

Given the huge popularity of Facebook, clearly more research is needed to understand the effect on appearance concerns and mental well-being. And as we increase our understanding of the effects, it is clear that the digital literacy of our students and their ability to manage their interactions with their peers through social media will be critical. Prevention is paramount.

At UWE Bristol the digital literacy of our students is a key part of our graduate attributes and our focus on nurturing ‘ready and able graduates’, which informs the design and delivery of our academic programmes. We are also drawing on our experience introducing high-profile preventative programmes, such as bystander intervention in relation to sexual harassment. And we have worked to embed an ethos of respect in our Welcome Weekend programme for new students. It is important that more continues to done by educators and policy makers to boost social media literacy, and beyond this, to increase awareness among parents that social media is yet another source of influence on perceptions of body image.

Clearly this is a societal issue that spreads far beyond universities and involves the whole education system. The launch of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Project at Universities UK last week was a great step forward, which I am very pleased to be leading on. This involves taking a whole university strategic approach to mental health and well-being, starting with a review of the sector, identifying best practice, and the potential development of tools to support future progress. The importance of working together to tackle the issues and support our young people to flourish couldn’t be clearer.

100% Student Satisfaction

Fifteen UWE Bristol programmes have performed outstandingly in the National Student Survey 2015, achieving the maximum possible score. A further 29 have scored exceptionally high at above 90%.

Feedback from our students is hugely important to us and helps shape the real world learning opportunities that we provide. Student feedback, alongside working with employers and professional bodies, ensures that the design of our programmes, opportunities and ways of learning are truly engaging and really prepare our students to thrive in the global knowledge economy.

Having our students rate their experience so highly is an excellent achievement and a real credit to these programme teams. It reflects the energy, commitment and innovation that they have applied to make their programmes truly outstanding. Congratulations to all those involved. Those scoring the full 100% are:

  • Art and Visual Culture
  • Business and Human Resource Management
  • Marketing Communications
  • Architecture and Planning
  • Creative Product Design
  • Product Design Technology
  • Information Technology Management for Business
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Climate Change and Energy Management
  • Mathematics
  • Aerospace Engineering (Design)
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • International Relations
  • Politics
  • Public and Environmental Health

It is fantastic that the best practice across these programmes has been recognised by our students.

Supporting Student Mental Wellbeing

Supporting the mental wellbeing of students is a growing concern in higher education and among healthcare providers.

As Vice-Chancellor of one of the largest universities in the UK, with an increasingly diverse student population, and through my various leadership positions in the health sector – which has included chairing the Independent Reviews of Mental Health Related Homicides across the South West for the Strategic Health Authority – I am very familiar with the need for close integration between the health, social care, probation, education and university sectors.

We know that in the general population at least one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any one year and one in six adults have a mental health problem at any one time.

But beyond that, we also know that there are very particular circumstances that students face in a university environment, that for some, means they are more at risk. And this problem has been increasing in recent years. Reports in the sector suggest an increase in referrals and applications to well-being services of between 25 and 37% since last year. At UWE Bristol, this certainly matches the increase that we have been experiencing.

Why has it been increasing over recent years? Well this includes factors such as changes to the profile of the student population, with a more diverse make-up than it has ever had before. It also includes a reduction in financial support that can place an increasing pressure on students to seek part-time work, at the same time as an increased pressure to succeed. More generally, we have also seen higher rates of family breakdown and an economic recession that has hit hard on many young people.

The student population is also in some ways more vulnerable than other young people.

When they join university, they quickly have to adapt to new environments and new ways of learning.

There are also vulnerabilities beyond the individual. Disturbed behaviour by one young person (for example self-harm) can cause considerable distress and disruption to fellow students, particularly in halls of residence.

Universities clearly have legal, moral and practical reasons to provide support for students with mental health difficulties and we have a long history of providing student support, counselling and disability support.

Students are at a point in their life when their university experience is likely to hold the key to their future success. If they already have existing mental health difficulties, higher education could provide a new source of self-esteem and opportunities for engagement with peers and the wider society. Alternatively, underachievement or failure at this transitional stage in life can have long-term effects on self-esteem, and could affect the progress of someone’s future life.

Universities are about opportunities and it is important that all students are supported to succeed. However, this is at a time when the pressure on the public purse and public services is intense. How much can a university do to make up for this shortfall in the interests of its students? Clearly we need to be smart about this and take an integrated and effective approach.

We know there are important practical impediments to this, including restrictions on the transfer of confidential information between agencies. However, a number of models of collaborative working have been established across the country and we should look to and learn from these.

The UUK guidance ‘Student mental wellbeing in higher education: good practice guide’, launched last week and picked up by the Times Higher Education today, provides a great new resource. I was very pleased to give the key note address at this event, on what is a critical agenda – not just to individuals, but also to families and wider society.