The Hidden Dangers of Social Media Use by College Students

The Hidden Dangers of Social Media Use by College Students

The use of social media holds a lot of promise for higher education and it is being included as a learning activity within both traditional and online classes. It provides a means for students and educators to connect, collaborate, and build academic communities outside of the classroom. However, students (and educators) need to consider the potential hidden risks that they may be exposed to as a result of over-utilizing social media sources, especially during class. There are pro-active steps students can implement now and resources that are available whenever help is needed.

Social Media and Learning

I’m one of many educators who recognized the potential benefits of social media and use it as a learning activity. In my post, How Social Networking Relates to Online Learning, I noted that the most common reason why students are encouraged to be involved in social networking is the ability of these websites to promote collaboration. This is true for all students; however, it is especially true for online students who are separated by distance because it brings them together to create a learning community. While students are expected to participate in class discussions (on-ground classes) or discussion boards (online classes), social networking furthers the interactions and humanizes the learning process as they can discuss issues and topics related to the course, their career, and/or their academic goals.

Some schools have also developed their own social networks to promote collaboration outside of the classroom. Ananda Gunawardena, associate teaching professor in the Computer Science Department, and David S. Kaufer, professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University developed a social networking platform for students and educators called Classroom Salon. Gunawardena stated in Science Daily that “we’ve tried to capture the sense of connectedness that makes social media sites so appealing, but within a framework that that allows groups to explore texts deeply. So it’s not just social networking for the sake of socializing but enhancing the student experience as readers and writers.” The purpose of the website is to promote collaboration and interactive tools such as online editing features are provided to enable the process.

Potential Dangers of Social Networking

While the use of social media is gaining popularity in higher education, Dr. Larry D. Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, warns that there may also be negative consequences that could affect the learning process. In Social Networking’s Good and Bad Impacts on Kids, Rosen indicates that studies have found “young adults who have a strong Facebook presence show more signs of other psychological disorders, including antisocial behaviors, mania and aggressive tendencies.”  Rosen also notes that “college students who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period achieved lower grades.”

From my experience as an instructor, students who are connected to and actively participate in Facebook activities (timeline updates, apps, games, etc.) are checking much more frequently than every 15 minutes. It has become necessary for instructors in traditional classes to develop an Internet usage policy in their classroom for this very reason. In contrast, my online students have talked about (especially during time management discussions) how they are easily distracted while trying to complete their school work because they are checking for new updates from their friends on Facebook.

Students have always had a need to address potential distractions, time management, and socialization issues. This is nothing new. However, it seems that participation in social networking websites can create additional problems. In a New York Times post Where Have All the Neurotics Gone?, it was noted that “people of all ages today, and most especially young people, are awash in self-confession, not only in the reality-show of pop culture but in the increasingly public availability of almost every waking thought, through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.” While that may not seem too harmful, there is growing concern that these online networking activities can lead to neurosis and increased feelings of anxiety.

Pitt Derryberry, associate professor of educational psychology and human development at Western Kentucky University, and Meghan Saculla, a Flagler College adjunct professor, conducted research to determine the behavioral impact of social media on college students. The results were discussed in Study Links Facebook to Narcissism. Derryberry and Saculla found that as narcissism increased among college students (because of social networking use), empathy decreased.  Dawn Braithwaite, chairwoman of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes that “the manner in which media is being used influences student behavior, not necessarily the specific site students are using.” In other words, students can develop neuroses from over-utilizing any social media website.

Are College Students at Risk?

Is it just a matter of students checking their social media websites too often that makes it an issue? Or, is this an indicator of a much bigger problem? In my post, Are Online Students Addicted to Technology?, I discussed Internet addiction, which is viewed as a compulsive behavior and “the person with an Internet addiction may feel a similar “˜rush’ from booting up their computer and going to their favorite web sites.” Dr. Tyger Latham, in a Psychology Today blog post, noted that “like other potentially compulsive behaviors such as gambling, exercising, and eating, people who engage in addictive behaviors initially derive pleasure from them, only later to develop a dependence that can become all-consuming and potentially self-destructive.”

Dr. Kimberly Young, a professor at St. Bonaventure University, author, and founding member of the International Society of Mental Health Online, discussed this issue in her blog post Internet Addiction Among College Students: 10 Startling Trends. Young indicates that Internet addiction is a serious concern now for college students and refers to a published study that found there was a “significant association between pathological Internet use and depression in college students.” This is important consideration because college students are already at risk for experiencing stress.

Dr. Larry D. Rosen also wrote Face the Facts: We Are All Headed For an iDisorder, and indicated that “an iDisorder is where you exhibit signs and symptoms of a psychiatric disorder such as OCD, narcissism, addiction or even ADHD, which are manifested through your use “” or overuse “” of technology.” While social networking was not specifically named, the over-use of social media websites can contribute to addiction and other disorders.

Resources for Students

In Rosen’s book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, he discusses the amount of mental activity required to use technological-based tools and programs, and provides strategies and techniques that address the potential over-use issue. A proactive approach that Rosen recommends is to take a break every few hours and for a 15 minute time period, allow your brain to reset. The activities during this time could involve looking at a picture book (preferably of nature), taking a walk, or talking to someone (obviously not via email, chat, or social networking websites).

If you recognize a possibility that you are experiencing any form of stress or anxiety, and the use of social networking websites increases your feelings of discomfort, it is likely you may need more than a 15 minute break. The first resource you have available is your school. If you are uncertain where to look, ULifeline may be able to point you in the right direction. ULifeline is a project of The Jed Foundation and it is described as “the nation’s leading organization working to protect the emotional health of America’s college students, and was developed with input from leading experts in mental health and higher education.” When you visit their website you can search by your school name to receive information about the available resources. At present, there are approximately 1,300 institutions listed in their database.

Another helpful resource is Half of Us, which shares the personal narratives of celebrities and students nationwide, as a means of learning about disorders that college students often experience. Half of Us is also sponsored by The Jed Foundation and will help you connect with resources that are available through your school and the community.

The use of social media can be a valuable resource for institutions, educators, and students. The key to implementing it as an educational learning activity is to understand the potential risks involved. If it only contributes to the level of frustration and anxiety experienced by students, then its purpose is minimized.

There is still a lot to be learned about students and the effects of Internet usage on them, which is further complicated by increased participation in social networking websites. In addition, students who have been raised in a technological-based generation may not easily recognize that they are developing a disorder or are prone to neurosis. The best approach for the use of social networking is to be aware of the possible side effects and how to find resources.

If you, as a student, find that you have any of these conditions – now is the time to check with your school and find resources to help yourself.

Have you experienced any negative consequences because of your involvement in social networking? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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