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.

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