Lisa Rivero M.A.

Creative Synthesis

Facebook 101: Smart Social Media for College Students

Research suggests ways to use social media for better well-being.

Posted Feb 06, 2015

I like to arrive to class a few minutes early to set up AV equipment, get my papers in order, and engage in light banter with students before we delve into the day's topics. The scene is probably familiar to many college teachers today: some students take advantage of a few moments of rest in an otherwise busy day, while others catch up on notes or chat with whomever is nearby. But an increasing number of students' eyes are glued to phones or laptops, thumbs scrolling, fingers clicking, shutting down their screens only when it is clear that I want their attention.

In fairness, some are probably checking for important emails or even perhaps reviewing a digital copy of our textbook. However, given recent research on use of social networking sites (SNSs) among college students, I often worry about the short- and long-term effects on an already stressed population. While more research is needed to know with any certainty the impact of social media on young (and not so young) adults, two recent research articles suggest possible ways for students to use social media more wisely.

Female college student text messaging in the park
iStock photo

Facebook and Self-Esteem

In a recent issue of Psychology of Popular Media Culture, University of Toledo researchers published their findings on "Social Comparison, Social Media, and Self-Esteem."1 The authors define self-esteem as "the extent to which an individual views the self as worthwhile and competent." They conducted two studies: one looked at the correlation between college students' trait self-esteem (our more enduring or general level of self-esteem) and frequency of Facebook use. This study also examined the extent to which engagement with Facebook involved "upward" comparisons, meaning that users were viewing profiles of "superior others who have positive characteristics." In the second study, students were shown fictional social media profiles to investigate any impact of social comparisons on state self-esteem (more immediate feelings of self-worth), as well as the effect of user content (e.g., status messages) versus social network content (e.g., number of likes).

The authors (Erin A. Vogel, Jason P. Rose, Lindsay R. Roberts, and Katheryn Eckles) found that "people who had the most chronic exposure to Facebook (i.e., used it most
frequently) tended to have lower trait self-esteem" and that exposure to upward social comparisons on social media led to lower state self-esteem. Social media content (such as numbers of likes or shares) had more impact on state self-esteem than did user-generated content (status messages, for example), perhaps because we discount the value of content that others provide about themselves. Also, interestingly, downward social comparisons did not lead to higher self-esteem (the users tended to rate themselves as equal to those being viewed).

Facebook Envy and Social Rank

A second article, published in Computers in Human Behavior, looked at Facebook use and depression using the framework of social rank theory. In "Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing?"Edson Tandoc, Patrick Ferrucci, and Margaret Duffy explain that social rank theory is about competition, "competition for power or attractiveness, among other things. Those who do not succeed, or those who perceive they have not succeeded, feel subordinated." According to social rank theory, depression may be an adaptive response to help human beings to accept a subordinate role or otherwise resolve hierarchical conflicts.

The study found "no direct association between Facebook use and depression." However, when Facebook is used mainly for surveillance ("to keep track of what others are doing"), the picture changed, especially for frequent Facebook users, so that when controlled "for age and gender, using Facebook for surveillance leads to Facebook envy which leads to depression" (emphasis added).

Interestingly, when Facebook envy is controlled for, surveillance use on Facebook was a negative predictor for depression, leading Tandoc, Patrick, and Duffy to conclude "by just blaming Facebook as a cause for depression, we miss a complex but important process that points to perceptions of subordination. We fail to acknowledge that for many people, using Facebook is a gratifying experience that can even lessen depression. In order to address depression among college students, we must understand the complex process to be able to better devise an intervention."

Proactive Suggestions for College Students (and the rest of us)

Research continues to pour in on the possible effects of SNSs on users of all ages, and because social media changes almost as fast as we can understand it, we may never know with certainty the full impact of our digital age. In the meantime, here are some ideas for how to use social media more consciously and deliberately, to get more of the good and less of the bad:

  • Talk with others about what research is finding regarding social media use. Trust that young adults want to be happy and confident, and with the right information, they have a better chance of making informed decisions.
  • Consider taking a social media holiday, whether one day a week or a weekend a month. Students (and teachers) can benefit from disengaging from social media completely during exam periods, freeing up valuable time and mental space. The connection between feeling depressed and social media use may not be obvious at first, but there is no harm in taking a break to see if doing so does make you feel better.
  • Facebook envy is not a moral failing, and it can occur even if we think we are above such feelings. Simply thinking to yourself "Facebook envy alert!" may help to lift your mood when you start to feel the uncomfortable tug that occurs when others seem to have a life we do not have. Remember that social media profiles are often idealized versions of who we want others to think we are. The comparisons we make, conscious or not, are not always based on reality.
  • Consider scheduling time in your day for social media just as you plan for studying, meetings, and other activities, rather than allowing social media to creep into every spare moment. Fifteen minutes on your SNS of choice two or three times a day will allow you to catch up with friends and may serve as a fun break or reward after some productive work.
  • Disable social media apps on your phone during the day so that you have access only on your desktop or laptop.
  • Finally, if you find yourself feeling bad while scrolling endlessly through social media feeds, experiment with other ways to engage with SNSs that make you feel good. This might be crafting a thoughtful status message, sharing an interesting link, working on your own website portfolio, or contributing to a forum.

What proactive social media strategies work for you? Share them in the comments below.

Vogel, A. E., Rose, P. J., Robert, R. L., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3, 206-222

Tandoc, E. C., Ferrucci, P., & Duffy, M. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing?. Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 139-146

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